Archive for May, 2009

This is another attempt at the sort of post I have a lot of trouble writing, an update about how I’m doing. It occurs to me that one of the traits of Asperger’s is speaking like a professor, and most of my posts are in the form of lectures rather than casual conversations. I’ve been really gratified that people have been reading my posts about autism and Asperger’s, and I hope that they are helpful and informative (and I hope to write more).

But my overall idea for this blog is for it to be just like anyone else’s personal blog, where I can write about things that I’m doing or that are on my mind– so that might result in some abrupt changes in topic (like when a Star Trek review shows up in the middle of a series of posts about autism!)

This week I’ve been preoccupied with a lot of thoughts about friendship– trying to figure out what it means to have a friend and to be a friend. I said in one of my earlier posts that I felt like it was easy to make friends when I was a kid, but it got harder as I got older and felt gradually more socially disconnected from my peers. Now that I’m an adult, I feel like it’s harder yet again, because I am no longer in a similar situation to many people my age. A lot of my contemporaries are starting or growing families, which totally reshapes a person’s life. Others are pursuing various goals in school or work. And some, like myself, are not quite sure what they are doing, but are hoping to figure it out soon! So it’s not as simple as when I was in school and the people around me were in the same classes.

I think it’s also a challenge to make friends because it naturally requires time and energy, and most people’s lives are quite busy. Mine isn’t quite as busy right now, but I often struggle with a shortage of energy– it can be draining physically, mentally, and emotionally to venture outside, so it’s not exactly as if it’s easy to make friends with me.

Some of that goes along with being an introvert– that means that I expend energy when I’m with people and need time by myself to “recharge”– from what I understand, for most people it works in reverse?

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This is the fifth (and at least for now, last) in a series of posts about various cognitive theories of autism, which attempt to describe the outward signs of autism and Asperger’s as resulting from some difference in the mind or brain.  Here are the first four:

The fifth theory of autism I want to talk about is the idea that the traits and behaviors of autism are linked to various sensory and perceptual issues that make an autistic person’s perception of the world different from a non-autistic person’s.  What if the behaviors associated with autism (such as rocking in place, ignoring outside input, or social awkwardness) are not indicative of a damaged or alien way of thinking but actually a logical, human response to a world that is perceived very differently by autistics?

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Star Trek

A young James T. Kirk watches as the U.S.S. Enterprise is built.

A young James T. Kirk watches as the U.S.S. Enterprise is built.

Producer J.J. Abrams has brought Star Trek back to life with a film full of action and spectacle that ranks among the best summer popcorn movies for filmgoers looking to have fun at the theater.  But what really makes Star Trek a success is how much its story is grounded in the character qualities of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise.  Don’t let the flashiness and fast pace of the story fool you– this movie works because it recaptures the spirit of the original Star Trek series.  The only major criticism I have is that the plot relies too much on coincidences during the middle of the story.

One of the smartest things that Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did was to wipe the slate clean and retell the story from the beginning.  I love the various Star Trek series and can go on about them for hours, but I don’t have trouble admitting that adhering mechanically to every bit of minutia in the Star Trek Encyclopedia tends to restrict storytelling and drive new fans away.

Take Captain Kirk’s backstory, for example.  Several episodes of the show back in the 60s alluded to Kirk having served on this or that ship, or having lived on a certain colony, in order to give Kirk a personal connection to whatever the story was about.  About the only common thread was that none of these stories matched with what was said about Kirk’s past in any of the other episodes.  (Let’s not even get into how many times old girlfriends of his show up without ever having been mentioned before!)

Of course, Star Trek fans have been able to piece together a coherent story about Kirk’s past from all of these separate little mentions.  And a few of them feared that any movie that didn’t carefully follow that story would somehow mess up Star Trek’s history– even though Kirk’s backstory had never really been intentionally written; it just sort of “grew” out of the work of many different writers!

Mercifully, the new Star Trek movie ignores all of that concern from the very beginning, in a breathtaking battle sequence that drives home the danger of space travel and the nobility expected of a starship captain, and forever reshapes the life of the young James T. Kirk.  The characters are the same, but this is a new story, and anything can happen!

Let me assure you– even if you have never watched any Star Trek before, you won’t be left out of the story– this movie is the beginning, and no Star Trek Encyclopedia is necessary.

There are spoilers in the remainder of my review.  If you don’t want to be spoiled, go see the movie right now! 🙂

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I’m back from vacation!  Thanks for checking back here, everyone.  Between me being tired out from traveling and my computer experiencing connection difficulties, I’ve been kept away from posting a bit longer than I had expected to be.

I figured I’d talk about a children’s show that was a blessing to me when I was very young.  I don’t know if this specifically relates to Asperger’s; I think it probably did help me with some of the anxiety that comes along with AS– but it did so in a way that I imagine must have been helpful for a lot of children, whatever their situation.  That show was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which I used to watch on PBS.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the program, it was created by educator, puppeteer, songwriter, and ordained minister Fred Rogers and ran from 1968 to 2001 in the United States.  It had a very simple format; in every episode, Rogers would arrive at his television house singing the song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as he put on his sneakers and sweater.  He would speak gently to his TV audience, as if they were there in the room with him.

During the episode, he might have a conversation with one of his friends from the show’s world (like his mailman, Mr. McFeely) or visit an interesting real-life location like a museum, hospital, or fire station in a taped segment.  He would also usually work on some sort of craft project in the kitchen.

Each episode included a visit to the “Land of Make Believe,” with characters that included both live actors and puppets (many of them voiced by Rogers).  Usually, the make-believe story related in some way to the subject the episode focused on (for example, music or what to do when you feel angry).

At the end of the episode, Mr. Rogers would tell his audience “I love you just the way you are” and sing a song called “It’s Such a Good Feeling” as he put on his jacket and shoes and left until the next day.

One of the coolest things about being a 3-to-4-year-old in Pittsburgh was that Fred Rogers himself was from that city, and a lot of the places that he would visit on his show were in Pittsburgh or close by.  In one episode, he went to a planetarium; in another, he went to a dinosaur museum.  My parents took me to the same planetarium and museum and I got to see the exact same things and places that Mr. Rogers had pointed out– with my own eyes!  That’s pretty high up on the coolness scale for the age that I was then.  🙂

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Taking a blog break

Hi! Just wanted to let you know that I’m taking a vacation from the blog for about a week. Thanks to all who have been reading; I hope you’ll check back. Among other things, look for a review of the new Star Trek movie!

In my last post, I said that I think researchers have overlooked Asperger’s syndrome in females, and that’s the biggest problem I have with the “extreme male brain” theory of autism. I’m not the only one that thinks so. Recently I read a very interesting article online from the British Sunday paper The Observer:

Doctors are ‘failing to spot Asperger’s in girls’ by Amelia Hill, April 12, 2009.

The article quotes Dr. Judith Gould, director of the UK’s National Autistic Society.  In 1979, she and Lorna Wing co-wrote a paper that helped to begin the process of defining Asperger’s and the autism spectrum.  The British government is forming a strategy on dealing with autism, and Gould is pushing for an effort to pay attention to girls on the spectrum.

“We’re failing girls at the moment. We are doing many thousands of them a great disservice. They are either not being picked up in the first place, but if they ask for help they are being turned away. Even if they are referred for diagnosis, they are commonly rejected.”

One problem that you can run into in science is that forming a theory requires making assumptions, and if you’re not careful, those assumptions can be self-reinforcing.  If you go back to the posts about defining Asperger’s, you’ll remember that the syndrome is defined by a set of outward characteristics that seem to go together.

Most of the people diagnosed according to those characteristics are male, which leads to the expectation that most of the people who will be diagnosed will be male.  And because Asperger’s is still such a new diagnosis, even a lot of professionals don’t know a lot about what to look for.  I have read accounts of girls being told “You can’t have Asperger’s; you’re a girl,” even when they believe the traits of Asperger’s actually do describe them quite well.

In addition to that problem, what if the definition itself is biased because it is based on what Asperger’s typically looks like in a male?  Might it not be the case that the same cognitive condition might tend to have different outward signs in females than in males?  The differences in behavior between genders are not all due to physical differences in the brain.  There are a lot of societal and cultural differences in the things that boys and girls tend to do, and in the ways that they are expected to behave.  It seems quite reasonable to me that Asperger’s syndrome would tend to look a bit different in girls than in boys, and we won’t know what to look for until we pay attention and look for it.

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Okay; we’re up to our fourth cognitive theory of autism, a series of theories that attempt to explain the outward traits of autism by some difference in the brain or mind.

This theory is another one advanced by psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, so it builds somewhat on his earlier ideas about theory of mind.  (He gives credit to much earlier researchers 60 years ago for first suggesting the “extreme male brain” idea, but it had not been considered for a long time.)  My feelings about the two theories are similar, meaning that I think Baron-Cohen has observed something real, but I’m not sure he has the whole picture right.  (And, to be fair, he doesn’t claim to– this is the way science works.  You create a scientific model based on observation and adjust it as new information comes in that works for or against it.)

Anyway, my material for this post largely comes from a 1999 paper by Baron-Cohen, accessible here in PDF format.  Baron-Cohen starts off by assessing the three cognitive theories of autism I’ve talked about on this blog, noting both strengths and weaknesses in each theory.  Then he cites a few findings from research:

  • Autism seems to be at least partly linked to genetics.  In the general population, autism seems to occur at a rate of somewhere between 0.05% and 0.1%.  But if a child is diagnosed with autism, there is a 3% chance that his or her sibling will also– a significantly higher number.  Also, among identical twins, there is a 60% chance that if one is diagnosed with autism, the other will be as well.  So while genetics may not be the only thing that determines whether you are autistic or not, there definitely seems to be a link.

    (I can personally attest that, while none of the other members of my family have been diagnosed with Asperger’s, we share a lot of the same personality traits.  Some of the material I read about the traits of Asperger’s made me say “This isn’t a disorder; this is my family!”)  🙂

  • Most of the people diagnosed with autism are male; the ratio is about 4 to 1.  If you only look at Asperger’s diagnoses (those with no delay in speech or cognitive development), the ratio is even more extreme, 9 to 1.

    It’s unclear why this is, though.  Some genetic conditions, like red-green colorblindness, much more commonly occur in males because the genes for them are on the X chromosome.  In order for a girl (with two X chromosomes) to be red-green colorblind, for example, she needs to receive the colorblindness gene from both her mother and her father.  A boy receives an X chromosome only from his mother (he gets a Y chromosome from his father), and if his one X chromosome has the colorblindness gene on it, he will be colorblind.  (I’m probably oversimplifying this example, but hopefully you understand what I mean.)

    But so far, at least, genetic research does not indicate that autism is linked to the X chromosome.  It seems to be tied to multiple genes on multiple chromosomes among the other 22 that humans have.  Researchers are trying to trace it to something they can identify (I think there was a recent article about a new finding in this area), but it’s really complicated.

Baron-Cohen then cites research noting that men and women tend to have different areas of cognitive strength.  Here are the strengths he lists for females:

  • Language tasks; girls tend to develop language skills faster than boys.
  • Tests of social judgment.
  • Measures of empathy and cooperation.
  • Perceptual speed; the ability to quickly identify matching items.
  • Ideational fluency; the example Baron-Cohen gives of this is quickly listing as many things as you can that are a specific color.
  • Fine motor coordination.
  • Mathematical calculation tests.
  • Pretend play in childhood.

Studies show that males tend to be weaker in the above areas but stronger in the following:

  • Mathematical reasoning; especially in areas like geometry, word problems, and higher-level math.
  • The embedded figure test; being able to find a shape in the middle of a jumble of distracting information.
  • Mentally rotating or folding an object and predicting what it will look like.
  • Some spatial skills.
  • Target-directed motor skills; guiding or intercepting projectiles.

If you know much about the traits of autism, a lot of these weaknesses and strengths probably sound pretty familiar.  Some of the descriptions of being excessively literal and concrete or socially clueless at times do sound similar to the kinds of things that people joke about as being a “guy thing” (and provide sitcom writers with plenty of material).  Could it be that an autistic brain is an “extreme” version of the male brain, with these weaknesses and strengths magnified even more?

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It’s been a few days since I posted anything, but this time it’s not because I can’t think of anything to post. I stumbled across a website full of simple yet creative ideas for video games, and since then I’ve been working on coming up with my own idea for a video game. (I don’t want to tell you too much about it yet because it’s still in a very early stage of planning.)

When I get an idea for a project like this that really captures my imagination, it can seem like there’s not enough time in the day to read and think about it. There’s a cartoon I saw in a magazine many years ago that I have always really related to: A mom and dad are watching the New Year’s Eve celebration on TV, and their little boy is standing in the room with a wagon full of toys and a frustrated expression on his face. “But I’m not finished with THIS year!” he says.

Will I finish this project? Honestly, chances of that are very slim. I usually get to a point where I run out of ideas and have to put an unfinished project aside; sometimes I will come back to it much later after a period of not thinking about it and find I have some fresh ideas.

Sometimes I think that when I get to heaven, one of the first things I’ll want to do is finish all of the projects I have from throughout my life. (The first one would probably have something to do with traffic lights and road maps.) Time would no longer be a limitation keeping me from exploring, thinking, and building.

But I know that’s probably a pretty silly thing to think of doing first in heaven. Maybe the things to do there will be so amazing that I’ll forget all about the video games I thought of making long ago and be seized by ideas that are so wonderful and exciting that I can’t even imagine them now.