Archive for April, 2009


Okay; this is my third post about a specific cognitive theory of autism, a theory that attempts to explain the outward signs of autism as the results of something different about the autistic person’s brain or mind.

The weak central coherence theory was first advanced by German-born psychologist Uta Frith of University College London in the late 1980s.  She describes weak central coherence as “an information processing style” that tends to process “details at the expense of global meaning.”  Put another way, autistic people are very good at noticing details, but we struggle with seeing the “big picture”– we might see every tree but miss the forest.

Incidentally, here’s a link to a presentation by Frith on various Cognitive Theories of Autism.  It’s been one of my most helpful sources for this series of posts.

The funny thing is that, while the name of this theory of autism refers to a weakness, the most clear evidence of it is seen in a person’s strengths at tasks that depend on being detail oriented.

Frith’s video gives several examples of visual tests that seem to indicate that this focus on details is an area of strength in people with autism and Asperger’s.

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It’s after midnight right now, and the house is quiet.  (Even our noisy dog is asleep!)  I find that is often my favorite time of the day, because there are no distractions to deal with.  My mental “to-do” list is totally clear, at least for today:  there’s nothing else I need to do now, nothing else I need to keep in mind today.  I can listen to music, I can work on projects, I can learn more about my special interests…

I can just sit and think.  I know I said in another post that the concept of “being myself” sometimes seems meaningless to me, but I think this is what it feels like to just be myself.

I have always tended to be moody.  (Maybe my name should be “Dwight L.”)  Even though depression is something I have struggled with and sought help for, it’s never been with the expectation that my mood would remain constantly at one level– it seems to be human to have times of feeling happy and feeling sad, and strangely they often don’t coincide with the circumstances of life.

C.S. Lewis was very insightful about this human tendency.  There’s a section in The Screwtape Letters that puts it very well.  (In case you’re not familiar with The Screwtape Letters, each chapter is presented as a letter from a senior demon named Screwtape to his apprentice Wormwood.  Wormwood has been assigned as the tempter of a human that Screwtape calls only “the patient.”)

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

So you “have great hopes that the patient’s religious phase is dying away”, have you? I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Slubgob at the head of it, and now I am sure. Has no one ever told you about the law of Undulation?

Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life—his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dulness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.

There’s a lot of cleverness in the way that C.S. Lewis quite literally takes on the role of the devil’s advocate to help the reader listen to what he has to say in a new way.  It can be a natural response for a Christian to assume that a time of depression or of feeling far from God must be because of sin.  But the Bible doesn’t teach that.  The Psalms seem to have as many examples of people crying out to God from the midst of trouble as they do of people giving God praise for their blessings.  God has a purpose in allowing us to go through both, and he is with us through both, regardless of how we feel.

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The list

I’ve been concerned that a lot of my recent posts have had an attitude of complaining, and I know no one wants to hear someone complain constantly. But some friends have encouraged me that it is helpful, both for me, and hopefully for others, for me to talk about things that are on my mind. Because one of the things about having Asperger’s is that you spend a greater percentage of time living in your mind than most other people. More thinking isn’t always a good thing– sometimes it can be exhausting!

Anyway, I figured I’d try to explain something about the way my mind ordinarily works that I think contributes to my difficulty with executive function. I’ll tell you about “the list.”

No one can see the list, but I always carry it with me. It’s my mental “to-do” list. I use it to keep track of the things I need to do after I’m done with what I’m doing now, and I use it to prioritize tasks in the order of importance. I’ll try to give an example based on today, which has actually not been a very busy day so far.

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I’m going to talk about a second cognitive theory of autism, one that I identify with quite a lot.  But first, I want to show you a video game that (sort of) works as an example.  ;  )

Klax is a simple but quirky puzzle game that was released in the arcade as well as on a lot of home video game systems.   Here’s how it works:

  • A whole bunch of multi-colored tiles are tumbling down a ramp toward the player.
  • The player needs to catch each of these tiles on a small white paddle by moving it left and right.
  • If you miss one of the tiles, it screams (!) as it falls off the ramp and one of the lights on your “drop meter” turns on.  The game is over if you miss three tiles.
  • When you catch a tile on the paddle, you can drop it into the playing area by moving the paddle left or right and pressing A.
  • The object is to line up three tiles that are the same color– you can make a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal line.  When you do that, you get points and the line of tiles disappears (giving you the room you need to work with as more tiles come tumbling down the ramp).  Bonus points if you make a line four or five tiles long!
  • You can stack up to five tiles on top of the paddle.  Once you reach that limit, you have to drop one of them, or you won’t be able to catch any more.
  • Every level has a slightly different goal.  Sometimes only horizontal or diagonal lines will count.  Sometimes you need to get a certain number of points.
  • As the game goes on, the tiles come faster and faster, and the number of different colors increases too.
  • As a last desperate measure, you can fling tiles back up onto the ramp by pushing the up button.  But it’s only up there for a few seconds before you have to catch it again– along with the other tiles that were coming anyway!

Got all that?  Well, here’s a video showing the game being played.  This person doesn’t have much trouble at all until level 3.

It’s a fun game that starts out easy but gets steadily more difficult.  There’s an interesting balance of things you need to keep track of– moving to catch each tile, deciding where to drop it in the playing area, keeping the playing area from getting too full, achieving the specific task the level asks for.  It’s fun to play with a friend every once in a while to see who gets overwhelmed first!

And incidentally, that’s why Klax is my 67th favorite video game.

Okay, on to the main point of my post.  ; )

As complicated as I made the game sound in my description above, I find it easier to complete 30 levels of Klax than I often found it to organize the everyday tasks in my life when I had my first experience living by myself during grad school at Texas Tech.  Why?

Part of it is that I was able to describe everything you need to know in order to play Klax in that fairly short list of rules.  You can come up with general guidelines for all the things you need to do in day-to-day life like shopping for groceries, doing laundry, paying rent and utilities, getting haircuts, keeping your car in good shape, and fitting this in around a work and school schedule.  However, I could never make enough rules to deal with the specific tasks I might be faced with each moment, and as a result, even simple things could cascade into major problems:

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Back when I was trying to figure out if Asperger’s syndrome could explain some of the things about how my brain works, I found that some of its traits, like focused interests and social anxiety, described me very well.  One thing that didn’t seem to fit at all, though, was the trait of “lacking empathy.”  My difficulty has tended to be hypersensitivity to others; if others are upset, I’m upset.

In online discussions between people with autism or Asperger’s, I’ve seen a lot of people express similar thoughts.  While a few claim that they do indeed struggle with the concept of empathy, many others say that they don’t think that the description of autistic people as “lacking empathy” is right.

I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to this apparent discrepancy, but I’ve thought about it a lot.  This post will be a rather loose collection of those thoughts:

1.  It matters a lot what you think the word “empathy” means.

One reason that I don’t like the “lacking empathy” description is that people can have very different definitions of the word.  I always thought of empathy in terms of caring about another person’s feelings.  If you empathize with someone, it means that you care about what they are going through enough to imagine yourself in their place and feel some of the same emotions as they do.  Paul writes in the book of Romans that followers of Christ should exhibit this trait:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

When I read about Baron-Cohen’s theory that autistic traits are linked to difficulty developing a theory of mind, it bothers me because the concept of a person with no empathy is scary to me.  According to the theory, a person with an impaired theory of mind would have more difficulty putting themselves in another person’s place.

2.  What would a person with no empathy be like?

I imagine that a person with no concept of empathy would see other people as unreal or hollow, as cardboard cutouts with no feelings of their own.  Such a person could be very harmful to others, because there would be no reason for them to interact with others except to please or entertain themselves.  That sounds more like a sociopath than an autistic to me, and I think that linking the two would be a severe misunderstanding.

Based on what I’ve read from others who have experiences with sociopathic behavior, a sociopath will often come across as very charming and charismatic; they know the right “buttons” to press to get the responses they want from a person, but they don’t really care about them.  I think that’s pretty close to the opposite of an person with autism or Asperger’s.  They might be awkward, standoffish, or even rude because they have trouble with the social norms, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about others.

3.  Maybe psychologists are using a different definition of “empathy.”

Some of what I have read indicates that what I have been calling empathy is really sympathy.  Here’s how Wikipedia’s editors defined empathy, for example:

Empathy is the capability to share and understand another’s emotion and feelings. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes,” or in some way experience what the other person is feeling. Empathy does not necessarily imply compassion, sympathy, or empathic concern because this capacity can be present in context of compassionate or cruel behavior.”

This definition seems to indicate that empathy is purely the ability to sense or know what another person is feeling without them telling you, and that whether you care how they feel or not is a totally separate matter.

I have a little trouble understanding this concept, though– if I am “sharing” another person’s happiness or sadness, and if have put myself “into their shoes,” how is it even possible for me to simultaneously not care about how that person feels?  If I truly didn’t care that another person was sad, why would the fact that I know they are sad make me sad?

On a message board, I read the following attempt by an person with Asperger’s to explain what empathy means, and I thought it was interesting:

“I believe empathy is one of the biggest problems for aspies. Others’ feelings, motivations, hidden agendas, interests, plans, goals are a mystery to us, we lack the intuition to capture them, we lack the antennae to tune into them.

This is not to be confused with lacking compassion. Once I know what another may be going through, I am extremely compassionate.

Empathy is the ability to figure what the other is feeling. It’s what good salesmen are best at. They intuitively know how to catch your interest, what will hook you, what will make you feel at home with them. They’re not necessarily compassionate. The fact that they can figure you out easily doesn’t mean they care for your sufferings.”

This leads me to another question:

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I’m very thankful not to have had to deal with being picked on at school the way that a lot of people with Asperger’s have.  I think that part of this is because I’ve always been a shy, compliant person.  I spend a lot of time and energy trying to overcome the fear of possibly offending someone.  If I don’t know the right thing to say or do, I’m more likely to try to fade into the background than to speak up with something that people might possibly see as inappropriate.  (Of course, the avoidant approach brings its own problems.)

But my classmates also deserve a lot of credit for being patient and kind with me and shrugging off my idiosyncracies.  There’s one time in particular that makes me laugh when I look back on it now, because if ever I deserved to be given a hard time, this was it!  The culprit was my literal mind that sought to follow all rules to the letter.

We were in 7th grade, and we were in Mrs. R.’s classroom for grammar.  I loved grammar– especially sentence diagrams.  Everything in the workbook was about remembering and applying rules.  It was like math with words.

Our teacher, Mrs. R., had given us a couple sections from the workbook to do, and she had us trade papers with a neighbor so that we could grade each other’s work before handing them in.  Each of the two sections consisted of a list of sentences, and the instructions were to mark specific words within those sentences (adverbs, prepositions, or something like that).

My classmate had gotten most of the sentences right.  But there was still something wrong.  The first section’s instructions said to circle the correct words, while the second section said to underline the correct words.  (There was no particular reason for the change; the task in both sections was the same.)  My classmate had circled words in both sections!

I had to find out what to do, so I raised my hand to ask Mrs. R. a question.  “What if someone circled the words instead of underlining them?”  I’m not sure if she had noticed that the sections had different instructions.  “Well, it’s important to read the instructions,” she said (I’m paraphrasing).  “If you circled instead of underlining, you didn’t follow the instructions.”  So, I dutifully marked every answer in the second section on the page wrong.  If any other students had made the same mistake, they probably also saw their grade on that page reduced by 50%.

I really didn’t think much of it at the time, but now that I look back on it, it’s kind of amazing I didn’t get stuffed into a locker or something for that, isn’t it?  😀

It’s good to keep things like this in mind when other people do things that frustrate me.

The greatness of Mike Lange

Today I’ve been annoyed because I wanted to post about something, but a good post just hasn’t formed in my mind clearly enough for me to get it into written form.  There’s not really anything going on, either.  A friend of mine who also loves astronomy invited me to go stargazing with him tonight, but I couldn’t come because I have to work online for a couple hours tonight.

But my mood is a bit improved right now, because the Pittsburgh Penguins just won in overtime to start their playoff season off with a 2-0 lead over the hated Philadelphia Flyers.  I don’t get to watch most of the Penguins’ playoff games on TV here (ever since the league cancelled a season because of a labor dispute, their TV contract has been a lot flimsier).  But that means I get to enjoy the radio calls of Pittsburgh’s Mike Lange (last name pronounced “Lang”) over the Internet!

He does a nice job of calling the action of the game, but what makes listening to him really fun is waiting to find out what he’s going to say after the Penguins’ next goal.  Lange has dozens of catchphrases that are about the most random things ever.  Watch and listen to the video to see what I mean!

This is part of a series of posts I’m trying to do about the cognitive theories of autism that are prevalent today, which attempt to explain the outward signs of autism and Asperger’s syndrome by what is happening in the mind or brain.  I have heard of at least five such theories; how much I am able to tell you about them depends on how much I’m able to understand.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this first one, and it still has me pretty confused– not so much about what the theory says, but about whether and how it may apply to me.  I’m not sure that I agree with it, but I’m also not positive that I understand it properly.

At any rate, I’m looking at the view that autism is characterized by a difficulty or delay in developing a theory of mind.  One of the biggest proponents of this idea is Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge psychology professor whose research of autism has gathered a lot of evidence that seems to show a connection.  (If his name sounds vaguely familiar to you, that may be because he has a famous cousin, actor Sacha Baron Cohen.  Yes, his cousin played Borat.)

So, anyway, what is a theory of mind?  Simon Baron-Cohen defines it as follows:

“A theory of mind is the ability to infer mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.).  We seem to do this an enormous amount, as a natural way of thinking about why people do what they do.”

Developing a theory of mind includes recognizing that other people have their own minds, with their own beliefs, desires, and awareness of the world; and that one’s own mind also has these properties; and that the perspectives, beliefs, and emotions of others can be different from one’s own.

This isn’t a simple concept.  What is a mind, after all?  You can’t see another person’s mind, or even your own.  You can’t directly hear another person’s thoughts or feel their feelings (unless you know how to do a Vulcan mind meld).  That’s why psychologists call it a theory of mind– the idea that each person has a mind is not directly observable, but like a scientific theory, it helps us to make sense of what we see– in this case, the behavior of people around us.  Baron-Cohen gives an example of how we regularly make use of the theory of mind, using italics to mark the words that refer to thoughts about what’s going on inside another person’s mind:

“For example, you might wonder why someone hasn’t phoned you in a while:  You speculate that maybe you’ve offended them in some way, or at least they think you have.  Or maybe they’re trying to avoid you because they feel the friendship is suffocating.  Or maybe they just want more space.  So you phone them up and they say that everything is fine.  You start wondering whether, when they say that, do they actually mean it?  Perhaps they’re intending to keep things polite but really wish the friendship was over?”

Now that I think about it, it’s amazing that we work all of this stuff out when we’re still very young, but we do.  Psychologists have studied how children tend to develop a theory of mind, and they can see signs of it developing between the ages of 1 and 4 for most children.

Simon Baron-Cohen gives several examples of signs that a child is developing a theory of mind:

  • Understanding the difference between mental and physical things.  If one child is holding a dog and another is thinking about a dog, which of them can pet the dog?
  • Being able to name some of the mental functions of the brain– understanding that the brain thinks, feels, dreams, etc.
  • Being able to pick out words that refer to things that happen in the mind (think, imagine, pretend) from a list that also contains words referring to physical things (jump, climb, run).
  • Using these words to describe things.
  • Playing make-believe.
  • Understanding that emotions can have mental causes (disappointment), not just physical causes (scraping your knee).
  • Being able to tell what a person is thinking about from clues about where they are looking– a person may stare at something they want or are interested in, or they may look up at nothing in particular if they are thinking hard.
  • Understanding that one’s intentions can be different from what actually happens.
  • Deception (whether that means lying or playing a game like hide-and-seek),
  • Understanding metaphor, sarcasm, and irony– non-literal speech.

These are all areas that autistic children tend to lag behind in learning, and Simon-Cohen believes that many of the traits of autism are related to difficulty developing a theory of mind.

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One of the many things I’ve enjoyed about starting this blog on WordPress is that it’s given me the chance to read what other people are posting about Asperger’s and autism– including other “Aspies”!  A blog I’ve really enjoyed reading is Soph’s An Ordered Mind.  Some of her posts have reminded me things that I tend to do that I had never realized could be connected to Asperger’s syndrome– but now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense.

Anyway, a recent post on that blog gave me the idea of doing a series of posts about theories of autism.  This is the next step in the scientific process after defining the characteristics of autism or Asperger’s syndrome.  It looks at the list of characteristics in the syndrome and asks the question “Okay, so what can explain all of these characteristics?”  Most of the current theories of autism are cognitive theories, meaning that they seek to explain the outward characteristics of the syndrome by something going on in the person’s mind or brain.  How does an autistic person’s thinking differ from a non-autistic person’s?  Is there something physically different in the brain that explains this difference?

Once again, autism can look very different in different people.  I already talked about how the autistic spectrum can range from what is considered severe mental impairment (such as never speaking) to what may be considered just a quirky personality (like ranking almost every video game you’ve played– it’s now a “top 80” list, in case you were interested).  And even the idea of “low-functioning” vs. “high-functioning” autism is a vast oversimplification.

I think most scientists would love to be able to trace all of the ways autism is manifested in different people back to one clear, simple cognitive trait.  (At least I would– I love simple answers.)  Not surprisingly, we haven’t been able to do that.  : )  That’s why there are many competing theories of autism.  They all seem to explain some of the common traits of autism pretty well, but none of them explains everything.

The theory you use to explain something naturally causes you to “fill in the blanks” according to what the theory predicts.  This needs to be done cautiously, though, with an understanding that it’s possible to be wrong.  The consequences of applying a theory that is wrong, especially when applying it to people, can be very bad.  In order to provide an example of this, I want to talk about what the predominant theory of autism in the United States used to be until some time in the 1970s, and I’m afraid it’s a very sad story.

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