kitchen table math, the sequel: intense world and nonrandom numbers

Sunday, January 13, 2013

intense world and nonrandom numbers

I haven't followed autism research for longer than I care to admit....so I hadn't heard of the "intense world" theory. I'm fascinated to hear of it now because I've spent years thinking something along these lines. In fact, from time to time I've asked myself whether I would be willing to take a 'magic pill' that would cause me to spend one day being autistic, and to my horror the answer has always been 'no.'

I don't follow the reasoning in the final paragraph here, though...
You also write about neurological and psychiatric conditions that can alter consciousness, and suggest that autistic people might actually have more consciousness than others.

Autism is one of those odd-one-out conditions in the literature. The classical assumption was that most severely autistic children are mentally disabled and have low IQs, but that’s partly because they weren’t tested properly. If you test them on nonverbal IQ, they are normal or slightly better than normal. On other tests, they perform better than average for perceptual tasks. Some people are now suggesting that maybe it isn’t a deficit, that they have a different kind of [brain that has certain] advantages. With Asperger’s, which probably many prominent scientists have, whether they are diagnosed or not, it seems almost as if they have extra consciousness: they are better able to process information than normal, which I think is a fascinating idea.

The whole idea that autism is [primarily] a social disorder, I don’t think that theory is going to last into the next decade because there is increasingly successful treatment that centers on socializing that has turned very withdrawn children into very affectionate socially aware children: I don’t see that as fundamental [to autism].

Do you support the “intense world” theory of autism, which suggests that problems result from sensory overload?

I just think [the social issues] are a side effect of the way [people with autism] approach the world. They are searching for patterns and structure in the world — what they obsess over isn’t everything; it’s mainly structures, stuff like calendars and mathematical patterns.

I worked with the prodigy, Daniel Tammet. [Tammet holds the European record for memorizing the 22,514 digits in pi.] He seemed very extremely autistic as kid and has been officially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but if you meet him, he’s very socially aware. He maintains eye contact. He decided in his teen years to teach himself [to be social and he did].

In what context did you work with Tammet?

We did a brain scan study [where we looked at his brain after he had memorized short sequences of numbers that were either patterned or random]. It was very striking compared to normal people. He completely failed to spot the external structure [in the nonrandom numbers] and his brain activation was very different from those who were aware of the structure. I make the claim that the prefrontal parietal network is important for consciousness; in my study, the prefrontal parietal network was most active when spotting these patterns and maybe that means a lot about what consciousness is for. For Daniel Tammet, his prefrontal parietal network didn’t activate for these sequences because he didn’t spot them, but it was generally raised compared to those of normal people.

Why Solving Puzzles Is Fun: Q&A with Consciousness Researcher Daniel Bor
By Maia Szalavitz | Sept. 21, 2012

10 comments:

Allison said...

It would seem there are people who can't differentiate extreme anxiety and social phobia in children from autism. Some of them apparently seem to think they know something about various aspects of neuroscience.

Watch an autistic kid having a meltdown. It is nothing like a socially anxious or extremely bright phobic or socially withdrawn child having a meltdown, even though all of the words you might use to explain the behaviors sound the same.

In fact, someone who has not met an autistic child may see a bright, overly sensitive, alert, neurotic, socially anxious youngster and think these behaviors are autism. but no expert in autism would think that.

Hainish said...

Well, I'm sure. If he memorised pi to that many digits (and pi has no structure, it is all random all the way through), then OF COURSE he's not going to spot external structure in the nonrandom numbers. He's trained himself not to.


"It was very striking compared to normal people. He completely failed to spot the external structure [in the nonrandom numbers] and his brain activation was very different from those who were aware of the structure."

palisadesk said...

The classical assumption was that most severely autistic children are mentally disabled and have low IQs, but that’s partly because they weren’t tested properly. If you test them on nonverbal IQ, they are normal or slightly better than normal.

I'd like to see some hard data on this, because in the cases I know of (about 2 dozen +, including several different schools and grade levels, children from varying racial and ethnic backgrounds), the children who met the criteria for "severe autism" were below average on both verbal and non-verbal IQ, by a fairly significant margin (<2SD). It's true they had more strengths in non-verbal reasoning and functioning, but it did not approach the mean, nor in any case did it exceed it.

Anonymous said...

Allison: Very interesting. Is there a decent source that differentiates among such kids?

Allison said...

Experience, it seems. But a clinical description? I think this is a situation where verbal or written descriptions don't adequately convey they sense to an amateur or outsider. Much like how an experienced psychiatrist would use words that a layman might to describe bipolar disorder, but view bipolar disorder differently than a layman would.

I think many (most?) clinical folks in child psychology, rather than just a pediatrician, can tell the difference. So can adults with significant spec ed experience.

But Hainish is right, both in specific example, and in the general sense: using anecdotal evidence about how an individual's scan looks is not scientific, because it does not control for the individual quirks, personality, and knowledge of that individual. it can't. And it demonstrates a lot of hubris.

Allison said...

here are citations though:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3035910/

http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/912781-differential

Crimson Wife said...

The developmental pediatrician who gave my youngest DD her autism diagnosis told me that 40% of kids with a diagnosis of full-blown autism (rather than Asperger's or PDD-NOS) have mental retardation while the other 60% have average or above-average IQ's. Enough children with autism also have MR for the research study that my DD is currently participating in to require an IQ test as part of the intake appointment. They couldn't get an accurate IQ score because she wasn't super-cooperative but they were able to tell from the tasks that she enjoyed like the puzzles she is perfectly bright despite all the language and social interaction difficulties.

She is a very sweet, affectionate child. Her biggest problem socially is that she doesn't yet understand how to engage her peers in a functional manner. She'll go up to complete strangers and give them a big hug, then wonder why they get upset and/or run away. She is enrolled in a social skills training group and her various therapists, teachers, and I are working on this issue.

Allison said...

http://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/10/30/social-anxiety-misdiagnosed-aspergers-syndrome

etc.

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