A Touch of Alyricism

Dedicated to the equally fascinating topics of autistic advocacy and the 'sisterly sophistries' of radical gender feminism. Other topics may occasionally crop up. Contactable at alyric@gmail.com


Polemicist since Grade 8

Sunday, September 21, 2008

IACC RFI Submission

To whom it may concern,

My apologies for this being a little late. Unfortunately, I had some illness to cope with and was unable to meet the Friday deadline.

My concern in all of research into autism and extending to what is done about it is that very little is known about autism period. Therefore, interventions have in general little evidence-base since none of them start where understanding of where the autistic person begins. This is perhaps the only field in the helping professions where this is the case and a sorry state of affairs it is. The reasons are I think mainly historical.

To date, what happened with the developmentally delayed was overseen by a fairly radical form of behaviorism, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) derived from B F Skinner's operant conditioning paradigm. I should stress that this is an evolutionary dead end as far as mainstream psychology is concerned and any enquiring researcher should read Professor John Mills "Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology" as a fairly good description of the fatal flaws in that paradigm. Suffice it to say, ABA and its research methods, because they have no need in their world to delineate what autism is in order to treat it, have been the reason why so little is known and why interventions have very little in the way of an evidence base. Behaviorists on their self report will proclaim the effectiveness of their interventions. However this is little more than anecdote from a biased source given that in forty years there has been exactly one randomised controlled trial of ABA as an intervention, Smith, Groen Wynn, 2000, and the results were marginal to say the least (especially taking the two errata into account). This problem with the great divide between research and intervention was also noted in the NRC 2001 report.

There are multiple reasons, why it is absolutely essential that what is done, educationally and in other ways with the autistic population starts with an evidence base of the ways in which autistics are in learning styles, in perception and so on. This is what is missing in the field for all practicable purposes and that is an indictment on everyone working in it. Why is it that according to recent report, most social skills interventions are outright failures? Well perhaps it's because these are behaviorally based and therefore divorced from any knowledge of where the autistic in this social equation is coming from.

I would ask that the IACC spend more dollars on cognitive psychological investigation of autism. It's a new field, but not totally devoid of information. Dawson et al's "Autistic Learning", available in pdf from http://psych.wisc.edu/lang/pdf/Dawson_AutisticLearning.pdf is a decent primer.

Kind regards

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Media Spin and Neural Plasticity

Sometimes, well perhaps more often than not, the comprehension gulf between a scientific publication and the press release about it is immense. Indeed, I cannot think of one instance, including the array of execrable journalism about vaccines and autism that gets it as wrong as the press release of Hensch et al’s paper in Cell, titled: "Experience-Dependent Transfer of Otx2 Homeoprotein into the Visual Cortex Activates Postnatal Plasticity."

The press release, titled, Trigger for Learning waxes lyrical about brain plasticity and learning, extending it to autism with this reference to the lead author Dr Takao Hensch:

“Dr. Hensch said developmental disorders like autism are a result of impaired timing of these learning "windows," like the one during which children learn to read."

Two things are notable about this statement and this paper. Primarily, the paper is about the development of vision and we have known for quite some time that there is indeed a ‘window of opportunity’ for the development of vision. The paper is not about learning and as far as I know, there is certainly no ‘window’ for reading and neither is there one for learning in general. With that in mind I asked Dr Hensch if he could verify the article’s depiction of what he said.

Dr Hensch replied with:
“Thank you for your question and interest in our work. I apologize for any confusion brought about by the media. What I said was "disorders such as autism, in which researchers believe critical periods may be inappropriately accelerated or delayed." I am unaware of any critical period for reading as you point out.”

Quite likely Dr Hernsch is referring to the accelerated head growth noted in autistic toddlers. This is quite some distance from ‘windows of opportunity’ for learning that the press release implies. It’s a shame in a way because it detracts from the beauty of this work. Science can be truly wonderful, especially at moments like this where a protein, initially responsible for forming the head of the fetus in very early development is recycled to play an important part in the laying down the connections for processing visual information. How cool is that?

Neural plasticity is not well understood as yet but what we do know of it tends to support the notion that the ‘window’ of cognitive development is quite wide and that those promoting ‘early intervention’ on the back of short windows of opportunities for learning are doing so based on no evidence as “The Myth of the First Three Years” makes very clear. As Drs Frith and Blakemore pointed out to a teacher who also hadn’t kept up with her neural development:

“Some parts of the cortex, including the frontal cortex, which is responsible for cognitive functions such as planning, decision making and self awareness, continue to develop during the teenage years and into the twenties.”