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How Disney movies gave an autistic boy his voice


In Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism , Pulitzer-winning writer Ron Suskind tells the incredible story of how his son Owen disappeared into "regressive autism" at the age of three, losing the ability to speak or understand speech and developmentally degenerating across a variety of metrics, only to reemerge a few years later, able to communicate through references and dialog from the Disney movies he obsessively watches.

A long excerpt in the New York Times, generously illustrated with Owen's expressive fan-art, hints at a book that is wrenching and inspirational by turns. It reminds me of 3500, Ron Miles's memoir of raising a son with autism who was able to engage with the world through thousands of re-rides of Snow White's Scary Adventures at Walt Disney World.

Suskind is a brilliant writer, and the excerpt is deeply moving. I've pre-ordered my copy.

Read the rest

Scientists learn more about the fascinating connection between our brains and our bowels

Bacteroides fragilis — one of the many "friendly" bacteria that live in our gut — seems to be capable of altering the behavior of mice, according to a new study. In a mouse model for autism, exposure to Bacteroides fragilis improved the mice's gastrointestinal function and, along the way, reduced some of their external behavioral symptoms, including obsessive behaviors and anxiety. Maggie 16

Leslie Lemke: blind, savant piano player on That's Incredible! (1981)

As regular BB readers know, the original That's Incredible! television show had a big impact on me, with its coverage of curiosities, strange phenomena, stunts, and amazing and unusual people. I distinctly remember being moved, even as a ten-year-old, by the episode featuring Leslie Lemke, a blind autistic savant with cerebral palsy who was a fantastic piano player at a young age. According to May Lemke, Leslie's adoptive mother, Leslie sang a lot as a child. Then, when he was 14, she heard piano music in the middle of the night. She thought they had left the TV on but it turned out that Leslie was playing a Tchaikovsky piano concerto that he had heard in a TV movie that evening. Above is the 1981 segment I remembered from That's Incredible! Leslie was also seen in a 1983 episode of 60 Minutes on savant syndrome, and he still performs concerts around the country. "Leslie Lemke: An Inspirational Performance" (Wisconsin Medical Society)

Things that correlate with autism

"Things that correlate with autism" is basically an entire genre of scientific research, in and of itself, and nobody does a better job of breaking those studies down than Emily Willingham. Her latest piece is about a recent study that correlates induced labor at birth with autism diagnosis later in life. Maggie 11

Memoir of raising an autistic boy who found himself with Disney World's help


Back in June, blogged about Ben, a young man with autism who had a fierce devotion to the Snow White ride at Walt Disney World, and who was the last person to ride it, after more than 3,500 turns on it.

Ben's father, Ron Miles, has published a memoir of his life with Ben, in which he narrates his journey as the father of a child with a profound mental disability, his love affair with Disney parks, and Ben's development through the extraordinary adults in his life (including some very special and caring Disney cast-members). It's an unflinching -- and sometimes unflattering -- account of the challenges of parenting and the special challenges of parenting a child with autism.

I read it very quickly, and often had to dab at my eyes, but it's not a weeper, really -- there's plenty of hilarity and thoughtful wonder and appreciation of the sweetness of parenting as well as the difficulties. Here's the blurb I sent to Ron for the book: "Brimming with heart and tragedy overcome, this is a book that captures the tribulations of parenthood, the magic of Disney World, and the wonderful online communities that allow us to lend aid and comfort to strangers around the world."

It's called 3500: An Autistic Boy's Ten-Year Romance with Snow White, and it's just out, and I heartily recommend it to you.

3500: An Autistic Boy's Ten-Year Romance with Snow White

Pedagogy of the Depressed: my experiences as a special ed student in the 1990s.

In May 2013, “Asperger’s Syndrome” will be removed as a diagnosis from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), leaving “high functioning autism” in its place. I agree with this change. Given the importance of the manual, however, it’s caused a lot of consternation and caused me to reflect upon my experiences.

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Epidemic, or awareness?

Here's some evidence supporting the idea that the increase in autism diagnoses is just that — an increase in diagnoses, not an increase in incidence. Increases in autism diagnosis aren't evenly spread around the country. There are hotspots. Researchers found that kids who move into these hotspots — even after an age where autism might have been normally diagnosed — have a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with autism than kids to didn't. It suggests that awareness and resources might play a big role in rates of autism diagnosis. (Via Micah Allen) Maggie

Physical, sexual abuse documented at FL facility for autistic and brain-injured

Investigative reports released under a court order to Bloomberg News show that caregivers at a Florida center for brain-injured and "non-neurotypical" adults physically and sexually abused patients, in a systematic and brutal manner. Caregivers "goaded them to fight each other and fondle female employees and in one instance laughed at complaints of mistreatment." At least five patients have died at the center in question, the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation, from alleged abuse or neglect there since 1998. Two patients died in just the last two years. (Bloomberg) Xeni

Danish entrepreneur helps people with autism get jobs that require focus, attention to detail

Gareth Cook tells the story of Thorkil Sonne, founder of a Danish social enterprise called Specialisterne ("the specialists"), which helps place people with autism in jobs that demand a degree of focus and detail-orientation that's impossible to find among the neurotypical. Specialisterne began because Sonne's son, Lars, has autism, and Sonne saw that he was eminently suited to many tasks, and that performing them made him happy and did useful work, too. Now Specialisterne is a web of social enterprises that does everything from training to placement, and Sonne is pondering a move to the USA.

To his father, Lars seemed less defined by deficits than by his unusual skills. And those skills, like intense focus and careful execution, were exactly the ones that Sonne, who was the technical director at a spinoff of TDC, Denmark’s largest telecommunications company, often looked for in his own employees. Sonne did not consider himself an entrepreneurial type, but watching Lars — and hearing similar stories from parents he met volunteering with an autism organization — he slowly conceived a business plan: many companies struggle to find workers who can perform specific, often tedious tasks, like data entry or software testing; some autistic people would be exceptionally good at those tasks. So in 2003, Sonne quit his job, mortgaged the family’s home, took a two-day accounting course and started a company called Specialisterne, Danish for “the specialists,” on the theory that, given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.

The Autism Advantage [NYT] (via Kottke)

How experimental design can create conflicting results

Is coffee bad for you or good for you? Does acupuncture actually work, or does it produce a placebo effect? Do kids with autism have different microbes living in their intestines, or are their gut flora largely the same as neurotypical children? These are all good examples of topics that have produced wildly conflicting results from one study to another. (Side-note: This is why knowing what a single study says about something doesn't actually tell you much. And, frankly, when you have a lot of conflicting results on anything, it's really easy for somebody to pick the five that support a given hypothesis and not tell you about the 10 that don't.)

But why do conflicting results happen? One big factor is experimental design. Turns out, there's more than one way to study the same thing. How you set up an experiment can have a big effect on the outcome. And if lots of people are using different experimental designs, it becomes difficult to accurately compare their results. At the Wonderland blog, Emily Anthes has an excellent piece about this problem, using the aforementioned research on gut flora in kids with autism as an example.

For instance, in studies of autism and microbes, investigators must decide what kind of control group they want to use. Some scientists have chosen to compare the guts of autistic kids to those of their neurotypical siblings while others have used unrelated children as controls. This choice of control group can influence the strength of the effect that researchers find–or whether they find one at all.

Scientists also know that antibiotics can have profound and long-lasting effects on our microbiomes, so they agree on the need to exclude children from these studies who have taken antibiotics recently. But what’s recently? Within the last week? Month? Three months? Each investigator has to make his or her own call when designing a study.

Then there’s the matter of how researchers collect their bacterial samples. Are they studying fecal samples? Or taking samples from inside the intestines themselves? The bacterial communities may differ in samples taken from different places.

Read the full story at The Wonderland blog

Image: Apples & Oranges - They Don't Compare, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from thebusybrain's photostream

Temple Grandin's brain doesn't just think differently, it is physically different

This is kind of neat. Scientists conducted several psychological and neuro-imaging tests on Temple Grandin — the woman who has used her own autism as a model for designing better livestock control systems. What they found is that Grandin's brain looks different, structurally, from that of a neuro-typical person.

Grandin’s brain volume is significantly larger than that of three neurotypical controls matched on age, sex and handedness. Grandin’s lateral ventricles, the chambers that hold cerebrospinal fluid, are skewed in size so that the left one is much larger than the right. “It’s quite striking,” Cooperrider says. On both sides of her brain, Grandin has an abnormally large amygdala, a deep brain region that processes emotion. Her brain also shows differences in white matter, the bundles of nerve fibers that connect one region to another. The volume of white matter on the left side of her brain is higher than that in controls, the study found.

Grandin isn't the only person with autism to have had their brain scanned. But the differences that have been found aren't always consistent from one study to another. That, of course, makes some sense, given the fact that the word "autism" encompasses a whole spectrum of differences and disabilities which may or may not represent one single thing. But there have been several studies that did find differences similar to the ones found in Temple Grandin.

And here's the really interesting thing. Some scientists think that the common differences we do keep seeing — especially the bit about the larger brain volume — might be a clue that what eventually becomes autism actually begins in the womb. Here's a quick excerpt from a story that Carl Zimmer wrote about this stuff last spring:

When autistic children are born, Courchesne’s research suggests, they have an abundance of neurons jammed into an average-size brain. Over the first few years, the neurons get bigger and sprout thousands of branches to join other neurons. The extra neurons in the autistic brain probably send out a vast number of extra connections to other neurons. This overwiring may interfere with normal development of language and social behavior in young children. It would also explain the excess brain size seen in the MRI scans.

Read the story about Temple Grandin's brain

Read Carl Zimmer's story on structural differences in brains of people with autism

Special thanks to GrrlScientist!

Image: Photograph by Jonathunder for Wikipedia, used under CC license.

Autism is more than a parasite deficiency

The New York Times Sunday Review had an article this week linking autism with the hygiene hypothesis. Written by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, the piece is part of the Times' opinion coverage, not reported news. It was also one of those sort of stories that comes across as highly persuasive ... until you start looking at the details. About halfway through reading it yesterday, it occurred to me that Velasquez-Manoff was making a lot of big statements—"perhaps 1/3 of autism, and very likely more, looks like a type of inflammatory disease", for example—without citing the sources to back those statements up.

That's easy to do when you're writing a relatively short article summarizing the contents of a much bigger book, as Velasquez-Manoff seems to be doing here. But the problems go deeper than that, according to biologist and science writer Emily Willingham. In a must-read blog post, she goes through the NYT piece and points out many flaws in argument and detail. The main problem, though, is a pretty simple one: Moises Velasquez-Manoff presents what seems to be a largely speculative hypothesis as sure-fire truth. To make that case as persuasive as it is, he leaves out lots of evidence that doesn't match up with his thesis.

Read the rest

Autism: Epidemic or awareness?

At Discover's big-idea blog The Crux, Emily Willingham has a really interesting post about the prevalence of autism—is it actually increasing, or is this really about medical definitions and increased attention?

This is a topic we've talked about here on BoingBoing before, most recently back in March, when Steve Silberman offered some scientific evidence that suggests the ostensible increases in autism prevalence are "caused" by more accurate diagnosis.

But Willingham's piece adds a couple of new, interesting details to that still-emerging story. Being more aware of neurodiversity makes it look like there's more neurodiversity than there was before we were aware of it. And that was true even for the guy who invented the diagnosis of autism.

Leo Kanner first described autism almost 70 years ago, in 1944. Before that, autism didn’t exist as far as clinicians were concerned, and its official prevalence was, therefore, zero. There were, obviously, people with autism, but they were simply considered insane. Kanner himself noted in a 1965 paper that after he identified this entity, “almost overnight, the country seemed to be populated by a multitude of autistic children,” a trend that became noticeable in other countries, too, he said.

...by 1953, one autism expert was warning about the “abuse of the diagnosis of autism” because it “threatens to become a fashion.”

Read the rest of Willingham's piece, which includes a detailed look at several different studies that back up this view of autism with evidence. It looks like the majority of the "increase" in diagnoses can really be attributed to the process of diagnosis itself.

Image: 74/365 - autism awareness., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from macbeck's photostream

Autism: Awareness isn't enough

Science writer Steve Silberman does an amazing job covering neurodiversity and the Autism community, so I've been waiting to get his take on the recent Centers for Disease Control data that found the rate of autism prevalence in the United States to be 1 in 88.

That prevalence rate has been on an upward trend for a while, and whenever the new stats come out (these are based on data from 2008), it triggers a shockwave of hand-wringing coverage that treats these figures as if they must be based on an increase in actual incidence of autism, as opposed to changes in diagnostic criteria and methods. This matters, Silberman writes, because the science seems to back up the idea that what we're actually seeing is better diagnosis.

That theory is bolstered by two recent studies in South Korea and the United Kingdom, which suggest that autism prevalence has always been much higher than the estimated 1-in-10,000 when the diagnostic criteria were much more narrow and exclusionary. What’s changed now is that — in addition to the radical broadening of the spectrum following the introduction of diagnostic subcategories like Asperger’s syndrome and PDD-NOS – clinicians, teachers, and parents have gotten much better at recognizing autism, particularly in very young children. That’s actually good news, because by identifying a child early, parents can engage the supports, therapies, modes of learning, and assistive technology that can help a kid express the fullest potential of their unique atypical mind.

The real problem, according to Silberman, isn't a mysterious increase in the number of children with autism. Instead, the problem is how we, as a society, treat those children once they are no longer children.

Once that 1-in-88 kid grows to adulthood, our society offers little to enable him or her to live a healthy, secure, independent, and productive life in their own community. When kids on the spectrum graduate from high school, they and their families are often cut adrift — left to fend for themselves in the face of dwindling social services and even less than the meager level of accommodations available to those with other disabilities.

Meanwhile, the lion’s share of the money raised by star-studded “awareness” campaigns goes into researching potential genetic and environmental risk factors — not to improving the quality of life for the millions of autistic adults who are already here, struggling to get by.

Instead, what people with autism really need is to be a part of their communities. That means acceptance of difference is more important than awareness of difference. It also means that respect, support, and inclusion are more important than frantic attempts to "cure" children who might not have anything really wrong with them.

Read the rest of Steve Silberman's story on autism awareness, autism acceptance, and what people with autism say they really want.

Image: Autism Awareness Ribbon, Colorful Puzzle Pieces, Free Creative Commons Public Domain Download, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from walkadog's photostream

Romance and autistic spectrum

Amy Harmon, who wrote in September about Justin Canha, an autistic high school student, has returned with another long, incisive, moving piece about young autistic adults striving to forge romantic relationships with one another:

From the beginning, their physical relationship was governed by the peculiar ways their respective brains processed sensory messages. Like many people with autism, each had uncomfortable sensitivities to types of touch or texture, and they came in different combinations.

Jack recoiled when Kirsten tried to give him a back massage, pushing deeply with her palms.

“Pet me,” he said, showing her, his fingers grazing her skin. But Kirsten, who had always hated the feeling of light touch, shrank from his caress.

“Only deep pressure,” she showed him, hugging herself.

He tried to kiss her, but it was hard for her to enjoy it, so obvious was his aversion. To him, kissing felt like what it was, he told her: mashing your face against someone else’s. Neither did he like the sweaty feeling of hand-holding, a sensation that seemed to dominate all others whenever they tried it.

“I’m sorry,” he said helplessly.

Navigating Love and Autism (Thanks, Scott!)