Category: science


Hi!  It’s been a while since I’ve posted here.  There are some new things going on, though.

Probably the biggest is that I have a new part-time job!  I’m editing articles for an online physics journal.  Like my previous job reviewing English papers, it’s work I can do from home, but unlike it, I find it really interesting rather than stressful, so I have been able to get more work done.

I’m mostly doing copyediting for consistency in things like spelling, punctuation, and style of the reference list.  It definitely helps to have some familiarity with physics so that I can recognize the terminology, but thankfully I don’t need to understand everything the writers are talking about, because it’s really advanced stuff!

My coworkers/bosses have been really patient and helpful with all of the questions I have asked about specific grammar and style rules.  (I always have a lot of questions.)  So it’s not full-time employment yet, but I think it’s a step in the right direction, and I’m thankful for that!

I have also been continuing to try to develop my social skills; there is a local young adults Bible study that I’ve started going to.  It’s frustrating to me how little information I retain from talking to people, but I think I am beginning to remember a few names.

Other things that have kept me busy are watching our energetic dogs and following the crazy football season that’s been going on.

I have often thought about things I’d like to post about on this blog, but sadly most of those things fade from my memory when I don’t have time to write (or more often, the words to put them into).  I’d like to get to writing again, and I have at least one idea of something new to try for the video game posts, but we’ll see about that.  It seems that in order to write more, I need to think less, and the results are not always good if I do that.

Anyway, thanks for visiting, readers!

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I was watching this online commercial about how Google pictures its Project Glass working:

 

If this kind of technology became common, one of the positive effects I could see would be for people who struggle with face blindness.  It wouldn’t be a very big leap to create a way to “label” people with their names.  The names could even follow them around like the labels hovering over characters in video games like Minecraft:

My brothers and I exploring the uncharted seas together. (The name labels are too small to read, but you can see they are there.)

 

That’s certainly what I would do with it!  It could also help with executive dysfunction by providing a framework for keeping an organized schedule, kind of like how the guy in the commercial uses it as a dayplanner.  I truly believe that the technology of the Internet has been and can be a tremendous help to people with Asperger’s if it’s used wisely.

 

At the same time, though, I can also see lots of potential drawbacks.  One, of course, is the fact that you have to wear the Star Trek-like headset that might make you look a bit like this:

Did Google make Geordi's VISOR?

 

Or, at least, like this:

Major Kira tests another Google prototype?

 

Of more concern is the fact that other people would have the advantage of using this information too.  A salesman could use it and say, “Oh, here comes a guy named Nathan; my records say he just visited a Star Trek site.  I’ll try to sell him my Star Trek DVDs.”  That would be annoying.

Even more likely is that Google could sell ad space, so if I used this as my dayplanner, it would be yet another way to advertise, this time literally right in my face!  The commercial, after all, is not just targeting ukelele-playing boyfriends– it is also catching the notice of businesses like the bookstore, the concert promoter, and the coffee truck, which all get business from the guy in the commercial thanks to Google’s invention.

It’s also interesting to ponder how such a device could affect the way people think.  One commenter on the news article announcing this project said something like “Goodbye spontaneity.”  It’s true– what might seem freeing to people who struggle with organization and socializing could be very restricting to people who are social by nature.

And if you have a guide to help do something for you, it might cause you to stop exercising the muscle (or in this case, mental facility) that allows you to do it yourself.  The idea is a little amusing to me– could reliance on technology like this make everyone think a little more like an Aspie?

CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a segment about face blindness last night, and I figured I’d share some thoughts about it.

If I could add captions to the movie, that would be fun, but I don’t know how to do that.  So I’ll try writing a running commentary according to the time index of the video.

Part 1:

0:10  It’s been a while since I watched this program.  Goodness, they are being dramatic, with correspondent Lesley Stahl giving her introduction from an endless black void with a creepy picture hovering behind her!

0:45  As you might expect, the report mostly focuses on some of the most extreme examples of face blindness, because… well, that’s more dramatic!  My own face blindness is not as severe as most of the examples they will talk about in this segment.  (Also, while face blindness is often a trait of autism/Asperger’s, many faceblind people are not autistic.)

I have never had trouble recognizing my close family members or myself in a mirror.  And I was able to recognize my high school classmates right away at our reunion. But I’ve spent years with those people where I saw them on a daily basis and spent time getting to know them.  I start to have trouble with people I only see from time to time.

1:20  This is something I’ve always wondered about 60 Minutes.  Do they make sure that the stopwatch is always at the right minute and second based on when the commercial breaks come, or do they fudge things a bit?  It looks like the watch is running about 20 seconds fast here, but I think that’s because they cut the “Tonight on 60 minutes…” part out of the video.  What?  Oh, face blindness. Sorry.

2:00  I have at least some facial recognition ability, because I can recognize most of these celebrities.  And the ones I have trouble with are possibly due to unfamiliarity with the celebrity rather than face blindness.  But this is easier than real life facial recognition, because 1) I already know it’s a celebrity, and 2) the faces don’t move or start to wonder why I’m staring at them.

2:22  This camera shot is a more accurate representation of the task in real life.  All those faces going by– how can I pick out the ones I’ve seen before?  Do other people’s brains really do that automatically?  If so, that’s amazing!

3:20  There’s no “Aha!” moment for me when the faces go from upside-down to rightside-up.  It’s just the same image flipped.  Most people don’t have to turn their heads to read words that are printed upside-down, do they?  It’s the same for me with faces– if I don’t know them upside-down, I won’t know them rightside-up.  But flipping the image seems to cause instant recognition for Lesley Stahl.

4:00  Those poor people… I feel terrible for me too.  (Just kidding.)  : )

4:45  When you don’t automatically recognize faces, you use context to help you keep track of people.  If I understand what Dr. Novotny is describing, she can become familiar with a person as her current patient, but when they step outside into a crowd of people, their context is completely changed.  Now they are just one of many people visiting the hospital.  She might remember that the patient was a young woman with medium brown hair, but now there might be three other people in the room who fit that description, and if she makes an assumption, it could be wrong.

5:08  This is a nightmare scenario for me.  I would have to ask for the coworker’s e-mail address or try to text them, because even if he tells me his name, I will probably not recognize him in a different context.

Whenever I arrange to meet someone, I am usually not looking for a face I recognize.  I am looking for someone who fits the general description of the person I am meeting (age, gender, skin color, hair color, hair style, etc.) and who appears to be looking for me (by making eye contact or smiling when they see me).  Until I am sure who they are, I hedge by pretending to recognize them in a way that is hopefully also plausible as simple friendliness if they turn out to be someone I don’t know.

6:00  This exact thing happened to me with a friend who changed her hairstyle between school quarters.  She no longer had her hair in a ponytail, and that was enough to make me unsure that she was the same person until she greeted me by name!

I don’t experience quite as much dissonance as Jacob Hodes appears to, though.  If I saw a person change their hairstyle in front of me, they wouldn’t “disappear.”  I know they’re the same person because they haven’t gone anywhere.

8:00  The interview with artist Chuck Close is probably my favorite part of the segment.  I think he does a good job of explaining the thought processes a faceblind person uses to identify people, and showing how you can still be good at recognizing people by paying attention to details.  I think I also recognized the picture of Leno by the chin and of Tiger Woods by the lips.  I thought Tom Cruise was Doug Flutie, though.

Until I read about face blindness, I thought this was how everyone recognized faces.

10:00  I can echo what these people are saying.  The idea that most people have a mechanism that instantly and automatically “labels” faces for them seems as weird and unexpected to me as face blindness appears to be to Lesley Stahl.  Half the people I know say they are bad with faces, so I just figured I fit into the same category.  Maybe I do, and it’s a spectrum like autism rather than a sharp divide between “normal” and “not normal” the way the segment makes it appear.

11:05  Thanks, Ms. Stahl.  What a cheery thought!  (sarcasm)

12:00  I haven’t had the experience of not recognizing my own face, but I don’t really need to recognize it very often.  I mean, when I look in a mirror, the person in the mirror is going to be me, right?  Other people stay on my side of the mirror.

Moe by Michael Firman (click to visit webcomic)

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September 5: Paris

Our bus driver and tour guide in Paris was Antoine.  My mental picture of him is that he was bald and wore sunglasses, but I’m not too confident in my memory of faces.  He was experienced with the sometimes chaotic traffic of Paris, weaving the giant bus through gaps as easily as if it were one of the tiny cars zipping around.  Traffic jams could develop quickly, producing a cacaphony of horns and raised voices, but Antoine was usually able to anticipate and avoid them.

He shared a few facts about the city of Paris as we neared the hotel, including the fact that it was divided into districts, and the one where our hotel was located was known as a “red-light district.”  This produced nervous laughter from the students.  Our professors issued a friendly reminder not to be tempted by establishments selling sex.  “Once they have you inside, they will get you to give them as much of your money as they can.”  I don’t think we were tempted– in fact, we were a little nervous about possibly being in a rough part of town.  We made sure to only go out in groups.

The hotel was an old building with plenty of charm.  There continued to be lots of honking and shouting from the intersection outside, and as the hour got later, voices from the buildings joined in, presumably yelling for them to keep the noise down.  Believe it or not, I still got a good night’s sleep.  In the morning, we went downstairs for a breakfast of tea and croissants served by a delightful old lady.

I feel bad that this post so far has dwelt on the negatives of the part of town we were in.  I was impressed by the friendliness and warmth of the Parisians we interacted with.  Overall, our time in Paris was the most relaxing part of the trip– there was a laid-back attitude to the city that permeated everything.  Yes, people yelled in traffic jams, but that almost seemed more like a sport that people embraced with gusto rather than an outpouring of stress.

And, of course, the city is beautiful.  On Wednesday, Antoine took us on a bus tour to see many of its most famous sights.  We stopped at the Arc de Triomphe, which is in the middle of a huge roundabout– making your way to the center is an interesting challenge!  We went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, which gave us a great view of the city.  I noticed several football (soccer) fields.

Notre Dame Cathedral was awe-inspiring.  I thought about how it almost two centuries to build and wondered what it must have been like to spend a lifetime working on a project that wouldn’t be complete for generations.  It still stood as a monument to God, who is not constrained by time.

For some reason, the thing that sticks in my memory the most was seeing the “zero point” of Paris, which is about fifty yards away from the cathedral.  Apparently, whenever the distance from Paris is given, if one is to be precise, it is actually the distance from that point.  So until you have been there, you have always been at least some distance from Paris.

Paris holds a lofty place in the development of our system of measurements.  A meter used to be defined as one ten-millionth the distance of a line from the North Pole to the Equator that passed through Paris.  And the standard weight still used to define a kilogram is kept in the Paris suburb of Sévres.

In the late afternoon, we took a sightseeing tour of Paris by boat on the river Seine.  One of the interesting things we saw was the other Statue of Liberty, the miniature copy that the United States gave to France as a thank-you for building the big statue designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi that looks out on New York Harbor.  Hopefully, they did not think it was tacky to give them a smaller version of the same thing.

As afternoon turned to evening, buildings and street lamps lit up, and we saw why Paris is called the City of Light.

One last thought for the day:  I’m fairly sure I remember seeing a memorial for American soldiers who died in France during World Wars I and II.  I thought about my grandfather, who had spent time in France as a soldier during the second World War.  He had been so excited to hear that I was taking a trip to Europe– he sent me a note wishing me a good trip along with some coins from each country I would be visiting.

He shared with me that he had made instant friends in Europe by giving people a pack of gum and suggested that I could do the same.  Of course, today anybody in Europe can get chewing gum any time they want to just by going to the store.  Practically anything that’s available here in the U.S. is also available in Europe.  But my grandfather’s story drove home how much the world can change in a lifetime– and how people in places like France and America are free to enjoy good things only because of the sacrifices of people like my grandfather, and the soldiers remembered at that memorial, and countless others from other countries.

I was surrounded by history on this trip– not just Biblical history, but also recent history that had shaped the world.

I’ve been wanting to continue posting about what I was like growing up, hopefully to help people understand Asperger’s syndrome better.  But I’ve been a little nervous about writing this part, because it feels a bit like bragging.  It’s honestly not my purpose to boast, though, and I hope it will make sense once you’ve read the rest.

Hans Asperger described the children he studied during the 1940s as “little professors,” because they tended to study a specific interest in great detail, and then repeat the facts they had learned to anyone who would listen.  They would use formal language as if they were delivering a lecture, an effect that can seem comical coming from a young child.

I definitely had the “little professor” trait.  I learned to read when I was quite young– I honestly can’t remember not being able to.  My favorite sort of books to read were reference books that used pictures and symbols to communicate information along with words.  I would spend hours reading these books over and over again.

What sorts of things captured my interest?

  • Road maps.  A long while ago, I posted a funny story about how one year I said my favorite Christmas gift was a Philadelphia road map.  I was fascinated by the symbols used on maps for different types of roads and the names of the roads themselves.  I could watch for the road names on signs when I was riding in the car and figure out where all of the places we visited were.  At home, I would spread the map out on the floor and use highlighters to trace paths on it.  When my youngest brother Andrew was born, I told my grandparents how to get to the hospital when I went with them to visit my Mom for the first time.  I was four years old.
  • The states in the U.S.A. and the countries of the world.  I had an old atlas in my room that I turned through until the pages were falling out. I liked how each country was marked by a change in color and had its own flag.  Finding all of the countries on each map was like a game, especially in the case of tiny ones like Liechtenstein.  Before long, I could draw a map of state or country borders from memory.
  •  The bones and organs of the body.  Another of my favorite books was a human anatomy book; it was like a map of the inside of the body.  I liked learning all of the strange names for bones– vertebrae, phalanges, scapula, femur– and I could feel where they were inside me.  I read about the path that food takes through the body after you eat it.  I learned about the circulatory system (heart and blood vessels) and respiratory system (lungs).  I liked how I could ask my Dad, the doctor, any question, and he would know the answer to it.
  • Astronomy.  I loved learning facts about the planets.  Each one has its own day (Jupiter’s is 10 hours; Venus’s is 243 days) and its own year (Mercury’s is 88 days; Pluto’s is almost 250 years).  On some planets, I would weigh just a couple of pounds; on others, I would weigh a ton.  Then there were the constellations– 88 of them, just as many as there are keys on a piano.  I had a wonderful book by children’s author H.A. Rey that taught me how to recognize the brightest constellations in the sky, but I wanted to learn about all of them, even the ones without any bright stars, like Lacerta the lizard and Camelopardalis the giraffe.
  • Math.  Before I was old enough to start school, I did math workbooks for fun.  Really!  I enjoyed books that taught arithmetic by lining up rows of circles or squares so I could see what 9 + 5 or 3 x 10 looked like.  I would spend hours drawing squares so I could see what a hundred looked like– then a thousand.  (It didn’t occur to me until just now that I seem to have been a very visual learner.  Strange, because I’m actually diagnosed as having a non-verbal learning disability.  Are diagrams and maps considered verbal or non-verbal information?)

I’ve been thinking about why children with Asperger’s display the “little professor” behavior.  Some of the writing I’ve seen on the subject argues that these children are merely “parroting” information they’ve heard or read and don’t really understand the complicated subjects they are talking about.

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Why do so many of us on the autistic spectrum have trouble making eye contact?  Lack of eye contact seems to be one of the traits most often named as going along with autism and Asperger’s syndrome.  Maybe that’s because eye contact is such an automatic thing for most people, they notice when it’s missing or brief, even in a young child.

Think of how often people attach significance to eye contact or its absence:  “I could see it in his eyes.”  “She couldn’t even look me in the eye when she told me.”  “He looked nervous; his eyes were constantly darting back and forth.”  These sorts of conclusions aren’t always right, particularly with an autistic person, because it’s very possible to be sending out a signal you don’t mean to without realizing it.  Someone might think I am looking down because I’m embarrassed by what I’m trying to say, when I’m actually just trying to concentrate on what I’m saying.

This is just a guess, but I don’t think that things like eye contact or body language are innate, because it is possible to learn them and improve throughout your life; it’s just that learning to make “normal” eye contact usually seems to take a lot more work for autistics than for others, and it often needs to be a conscious effort rather than something that we absorb automatically.

But what is it about the way our brains are wired that causes such a difference?  One theory comes from observations of brain activity in both autistic and non-autistic people as they performed a task involving face recognition.  Each hemisphere of the brain has a bundle of neurons deep inside it called the amygdala, and several studies have indicated that these parts of the brain behave differently in autistics than they do in non-autistics.

Here’s where it gets confusing.  I was all set to explain how experiments showed activity in the amygdalae for non-autistic people when they looked at human face to identify it or tried to read its emotions, while autistics showed little or no activity in the amygdalae.  That’s what a study in 2000 found.

But then I found a 2009 paper that reported the exact opposite!  This study concluded that there was actually more activity in the amygdalae of an autistic brain than there tended to be in a non-autistic brain.  When it comes to how the brain works, there’s a whole lot we don’t understand.

But anyway, the theory I’d heard before was that, for whatever reason, the part of the brain that most people use to process human faces as a special category of information doesn’t operate the same way in an autistic person.  Because of this, faces are processed the same way anything else is– a collection of visual information without any special “markers.”

So maybe autistics don’t tend to make eye contact because our brains don’t “latch on” to human faces as different or more significant than their surroundings in the way that neurotypical brains do.

When I heard this explanation, I thought it was interesting, but something about it didn’t seem quite right.  It wasn’t until I saw an ABC news segment about a remarkable girl named Carly Fleischmann that I was able to put it into words.

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Okay, so a couple of posts ago, I tried to give an overview of how the 4th edition of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or the DSM) described the various diagnoses that fell under the category of the autistic spectrum.  The DSM provides guidelines for psychiatrists, pediatricians, and other medical professionals to use in diagnosing mental conditions.

Thankfully, it shouldn’t take me as long to tell about the way the 5th edition, planned for publication in 2013, defines the traits of autism.  Where before there were five different categories of “autistic spectrum disorders,” in the DSM-V, there will just be one:

Autism spectrum disorder

Must meet criteria 1, 2, and 3:

1. Clinically significant, persistent deficits in social communication and interactions, as manifest by all of the following:

a. Marked deficits in nonverbal and verbal communication used for social interaction.

b. Lack of social reciprocity.

c. Failure to develop and maintain peer relationships appropriate to developmental level.

2. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by TWO of the following:

a. Stereotyped motor or verbal behaviors, or unusual sensory behaviors.

b. Excessive adherence to routines and ritualized patterns of behavior.

c. Restricted, fixated interests.

3. Symptoms must be present in early childhood (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities).

(from www.dsm5.org)

It kind of looks like the criteria for autism, Asperger’s, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and PDD-NOS have all been rolled together into one more inclusive category.  The APA’s website has some interesting comments about why they have decided to make this change:

“…distinctions among [autism spectrum] disorders have been found to be inconsistent over time, variable across sites and often associated with severity, language level or intelligence rather than features of the disorder.”

Originally, autism and Asperger’s were discovered and described separately.  It seemed for a while that Asperger’s could be considered a “mild” or “high-functioning” version of autism, but the more we have learned about them both, the more difficult it has become to draw a clear line between the two.

The APA says that “previously, the criteria were equivalent to trying to ‘cleave meatloaf at the joints.'”  The new criteria reflect this.

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I figured I would take a closer look at the proposed changes the American Psychiatric Association is talking about for the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) set to be released in May 2013.

Again, I want to stress that I don’t have any training in psychiatry, so please don’t consider me an expert!  I’m just trying to write about my own reactions as I learn and think about this myself.  The APA has a website set up that has a lot of information about these changes, and explanations for why they are making them.

The 4th edition of the DSM gives criteria for five separate diagnoses that either sometimes or always fall under the autistic spectrum:

  • Autistic Disorder
  • Asperger’s Disorder
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
  • Rett’s Disorder
  • Pervasive Development Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified

(It seems that the word “syndrome” can apply just as easily to these names as the word “disorder,” by the way.  A syndrome is simply a set of traits or characteristics that appear together.)

In the new 5th edition of the DSM, the APA plans to remove these five diagnoses as separate categories, replacing them with a single diagnosis:

  • Autistic Spectrum Disorder

Why is this?  Well, let’s take a closer look at how the DSM-IV defines the five categories:

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Back when I started this blog, I did a series of posts about how Asperger’s Syndrome is defined, using the guidelines in the fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-IV for short:

The 4th edition was published in 1994, and it was the first edition to attempt to provide diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s syndrome– it uses six such traits to define Asperger’s.  (Note that it doesn’t try to explain why these traits are associated with Asperger’s, or what causes Asperger’s, or what people with Asperger’s should do/not do.  These questions are all outside its scope.  It’s merely trying to give a list of characteristics to look for.)

It’s important to remember that books like the DSM-IV are meant to provide labels for grouping people into categories based on outward signs like abilities, behavior, and what a person says about him or herself.  A label like “Asperger’s syndrome” is a tool that can be used wisely or unwisely, and as scientists learn more, they sometimes find that they want to adjust their system of labels.

That’s the case here, with the fifth edition of the manual being put together.  It’s set to be published in 2013, but a lot of the decisionmaking about the DSM-V is happening now.  The APA released an overview of the proposed changes to the public in February, and they are taking public comments until April 20.

One of the changes is that there will no longer be a separate diagnosis for Asperger’s Syndrome. Rather, there will be a single category labeled “Autism Spectrum Disorder” that includes both “classical” autism and Asperger’s syndrome (as well as two other diagnoses).  The rationale for this is that it had proven impossible to draw a clear dividing line between these different categories.

It has been interesting to read the reactions of people on the autistic spectrum to this news.  Some people think it’s a positive move that more accurately represents reality, while others are worried about how it will change people’s perceptions of them.  I think I might try posting about this in more detail.

For one thing, I’m wondering if this means I should change the site’s heading to “the musings of an autistic Christian.”  Of course, nothing has changed about me; just the label is different.

In my last post, I wrote about how I had a very logical, rule-oriented mind from an early age. One of the things I’ve been thinking about for a while is how much that tendency has both influenced and been shaped by my faith in Christ.

I grew up in a Christian family, and I went to the same small, conservative Christian school from 1st-12th grade.  As with any environment, the one I was brought up in had both positive and negative aspects.  I was protected from many potential pitfalls, and at the same time I became more susceptible to others.

I’d like to write about examples of both on this site, partly to help me organize my own thoughts as I continue to learn more both about Asperger’s and about God– and partly in hopes of relating to other people who are interested in Asperger’s and religion.

I’ve seen many discussions about faith and religion on Aspie discussion sites, and one thing that I find fascinating is that, while it seems common for people to describe the experience of having Asperger’s as playing a role in how their beliefs developed, there seems to be just as much variation in religious beliefs among people with Asperger’s as there is in the population in general.

One person may say that her orderly way of thinking made the idea of a God who establishes absolute standards of right and wrong make sense.  Another may say that his concrete thinking leads him to search for natural explanations for the world and to treat the idea of God or the supernatural with skepticism.  Both may be surprised that a similar way of thinking has led the other to a vastly different conclusion; I’ve seen threads asking “Are most Aspies religious?” and threads asking “Are most Aspies atheists?” on the same discussion board!

(Incidentally, the same phenomenon seems to occur with politics; people with Asperger’s can be anywhere on the political spectrum.)

Overall, this makes sense to me, and I’m actually glad that being an Aspie doesn’t mean I am exactly the same as every other person with Asperger’s.  It’s really important to remember that a syndrome is just a useful label and every person is unique.  Even people who share similar experiences can end up very different from one another.

Well, I was originally going to try to cram a lot more into this post, but I think I’ll save that for later!