Saturday, September 26, 2015

Our Gift From The Deep Past

UPDATED 09/27/2015: The Atlantic has a story dated September 23, 2015 entitled Autism's Hidden Gifts, by Olgha Khazan. In the story Khazan writes:
Increasingly, researchers are finding that even autistic people who seem, at first glance, to be profoundly disabled might actually be gifted in surprising ways. And these talents are not limited to quirky party tricks, like knowing whether January 5, 1956 was a Tuesday. Scientists believe they are signs of true intelligence that might be superior to that of non-autistic people.
This, of course, operates as confirmation bias for what I have experienced, felt and written about previously, and write of below. Confirmation bias be damned, it just fits.

I watched my youngest child twist himself up in an examination room at a large Children's Hospital this week. You see, my son contorts his body, bending his torso as if mirroring Jack LaLanne during a 1960s era telecast. His contortions are all about emotional comfort. However, his pretzel like positioning has caused much gnashing of teeth amongst his health care providers. They worry about scoliosis. As a result he will be wearing the modern equivalent of a medieval torture device to stop the twisting and bending.

I thought of the Hugo classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Don't want my son to resemble Quasimodo, eh Doc?

All this had me paying closer attention to a posting this week, Our Neurodiverse World authored by Steve Silberman. Silberman has a book he is promoting, the cover of which is below this paragraph.

It is cool with me. Here is a link if you wish to look more closely at buying it.

Silberman's writing in Slate is thought provoking. Challenging accepted premises is generally a good thing, right? When it hits as close to home as my offspring, and, potentially, their offspring, I always am attentive. Siberman writes:
Society continues to insist on framing autism as a contemporary aberration—the unique disorder of our uniquely disordered times—caused by some tragic convergence of genetic predisposition and risk factors hidden somewhere in the toxic modern world, such as air pollution, an overdose of video games, and highly processed foods.
Our DNA tells a different story. In recent years, researchers have determined that most cases of autism are not rooted in rare de novo mutations but in very old genes that are shared widely in the general population while being concentrated more in certain families than others. Whatever autism is, it is not a unique product of modern civilization. It is a strange gift from our deep past, passed down through millions of years of evolution.
I am still wrapping my mind around this. My two oldest sons are entering adulthood, and possibly fatherhood. What for them? What of my youngest? Should I rue my genetic footprint?

I have written here and here about my son and my imaginings of whether he has special insights and gifts that are collectively missed in the world's rush to "treat" him.

Silberman gives voice to this concern:
Just because a computer is not running Windows doesn’t mean that it’s broken.
By autistic standards, the 'normal' brain is easily distractible, is obsessively social, and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail and routine. Thus people on the spectrum experience the neurotypical world as relentlessly unpredictable and chaotic, perpetually turned up too loud and full of people who have little respect for personal space.
The main reason why the Internet was able to transform the world in a single generation is that it was specifically built to be 'platform agnostic.' The Internet doesn’t care if your home computer or mobile device is running Windows, Linux, or the latest version of Apple’s iOS. Its protocols and standards were designed to work with them all to maximize the potential for innovation at the edges. 
I work in a field that has taken me on an extraordinary learning experience. My work has changed me from conservative to liberal, from religious to irreligious, from ardency in health care systems to skeptic. Similarly, for those on the autism spectrum (think Asperger Syndrom (AS)), it is proper to question cultural pathways such as traditional approaches to schooling.
An inclusive school, for example, would feature designated quiet areas where a student who felt temporarily overwhelmed could avoid a meltdown. In classrooms, distracting sensory input—such as the buzzing of fluorescent lights—would be kept to a minimum. Students would also be allowed to customize their personal sensory space by wearing noise- reducing headphones, sunglasses to avoid glare, and other easily affordable and minimally disruptive accommodations. 
Many with AS are gifted in ways that defy conventional understanding. What about those deeper along the spectrum? Is it not logical to think their particular gifts, discrete and unexplored by science are just waiting for full flower? If this be true, can you imagine how those waiting must feel, dug in like ticks to their insular world?

Silberman illustrates with a story:
In recent years, a psychiatrist at the University of MontrĂ©al, Laurent Mottron, has produced a series of groundbreaking studies on autism with the help of his principal collaborator, an autistic researcher named Michelle Dawson. She fulfills a number of essential functions in the lab, including keeping Mottron up to date with the state of the research in the field ('She reads everything and forgets nothing,' he says), vetting experimental designs for errors and subtle forms of bias, and advocating for higher scientific standards in the field overall. 'Many autistics, I believe, are suited for academic science,' Mottron wrote in Nature in 2011. ' believe that they contribute to science because of their autism, not in spite of it.' 
Hugo's physically gnarled Quasimodo hinted at the deeper emotive and physical gifts he possessed. When we understand autism does not need to be cured, but accepted, oh the discoveries we will make.

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