Monday, February 19, 2007

Interpretations of Autism

The IEEE Spectrum edition of October 2006 has an excellent article on autism, new viewpoints regarding autism and different classifications of autism. What drew me to this article was the magazine contents using the heading relating engineers and autism. And this is what I saw at the beginning of the article:

Among the children of engineers, autism and related conditions are found twice as often as in the general population, according to British studies, and are unusually common even in the grandchildren of engineers. Anecdotally, hot spots of autism have been reported in major centers of engineering, including Silicon Valley; Austin, Texas; and Boston’s Route 128 technology ring.

The article goes on to describe a new theory on autism which tries to explain autism as something not resulting from only external causes, but as merely the extreme of a continuum on which all of us reside. To quote the authors, In this view, autism is a difference not in kind of thinking, but in degree.

The psychologist behind this theory, Simon Baron-Cohen, from the University of Cambridge starts off with firstly classifying two poles of thought: the systematiser and the empathiser. The systematiser looks for recurrig patterns or attempts to classify everything under some pattern or the other, but the empathiser understands occurrences as a result of action of agents, i.e. minds like our own. He takes the example of an unkempt but designer tie and the article then delivers the statement which should put engineers on guard,

And, if Baron-Cohen is right, today’s male engineer is more likely to leave the house wearing a stained tie than his professional forebears, simply because he is more likely to be married to a woman who is herself of the systemizing persuasion. In Baron-Cohen’s interpretation, the flow of women into the universities has sorted them, as it long has sorted men, according to inborn mental proclivities—greatly increasing the chances that two systemizers will meet and marry. Such “assortative mating,” as he calls it, would have served to concentrate the critical genes, increasing the chance that such a couple will give birth to the most extreme systemizers of all: those with autism.

Well, the theory is interesting, but I have to take it with a pinch of salt!!!

My only point of argument against such experiments and classifications is that the control period is too long to arrive at any definitive conclusions. If I may be allowed to place an estimate, the control period for such experiments cannot be less than 3 years; and in 3 years lifestyles can undergo a sea change. Case in point?? Check out the way Bangaloreans lived in 1999 compared to the early 2000s. Hell, consider 2002 or 2003!!!

This is not to criticise the scientists, for whom I have utmost respect, but in an already paranoid world, unless you have an understanding population, such articles can set off ripples. Thank God, this article is in Spectrum and not in Times of India!!!

And Spectrum being Spectrum, provides gems like these:

So intently do those with autism focus on the trees that they often cannot see the forest. “What happens if you have such an extreme systemizing style that you study a rotating wheel close to your eye, looking at the tiny details, not playing with it as a typical child does,” says Baron-Cohen. “Your systemizing is so extreme that you learn everything there is to know of that wheel, but a psychologist giving you a test would find a learning disability.

Going by the above, Arjuna should have been an autist (remember the famous "parrot on the branch: take your best shot" test conducted by Dronacharya for the Kauravas and Pandavas, which, only Arjuna managed to pass out of the 106 present in total (including Drona's son Ashwatthama). Luckily Drona was not like the psychologist described in the previous paragraph, because if he had looked at Arjuna's concentration as autism, mythology would have lost its best archer and hyper-polygamist.

The next paragraph should be an eye-opener for the ignorant many in Indian society who tend to classify autists as people with inferior intelligence. Nothing could be further from the truth!

With high-functioning autistic people—those who tend to fall into categories six and seven—a slightly weaker systemizing tendency allows them to tolerate irregularity enough to cope with the world. They can master self-contained bodies of knowledge, such as calendar calculation, or the ability to name the day of the week on which a date centuries into the past or future falls. This trick is commonly found in savants, such as the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man.

All said an done, the article is good, and the research, like all other research is aimed at the betterment of mankind. And in a sense of deja-vu for me, the article ends by saying:

Perhaps we must accept certain psychological extremes as inevitable side effects of essentially beneficial genes. “If we were to get rid of the autism genetics, we’d have no science,” Grandin says. “We’d have a lot of talented people but nobody who could make things.” And maybe this publication wouldn’t have many readers


Srivishnu Mohan said...

A very good article brought to light...
And also an excellent example by quoting Mahabharata... Arjuna's example makes the whole discussion even more appealing.
But what caught my eye was your remark on arjuna of a hyper-polygamist!!!! can we know how??

unni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
unni said...

Interesting post.
The article that SPECTRUM has so blissfully based it's argument on is not the best scientific evidence by a long way.

1. It is 10 years old
2. It is a retrospective observational study
3. The results can be interpreted in a different way depending on what you want to 'proove'
4. The conclusions are not applicable to all ethnic groups

I will stop - I do not mean to rant. However, if SPECTRUM is such a leading scientific journal, it should take these issues into consideration before it decides on a 'sensationalist' approach in quoting this article.

If you are really interested, I can discuss this further.

Murali's brother (who is a constant source of embarrassment to him)