How is creativity related to schizophrenia and autism? Psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman looks at a scientific paper suggesting that "creativity and psychosis share genetic roots" in the context of his own research on how different forms of creativity might relate to the schizophrenia spectrum and the autism spectrum. Read the rest
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Gabrielle writes, "Saori weaving is the perfect craft for happy mutants. You can't make a mistake and all variation is considered part of the personal expression."
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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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Special thanks to GrrlScientist!
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.
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.