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

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Guide to Idiots Parenting

Ms Judy Singer and the select coterie [1] of ASpar have provided the parenting world, or at least the autistic parenting world with a handy little checklist for the dual purposes of identifying the weaknesses in your autistic parent, or indeed, your own autistic parental lapses, should you be wearing the right label. Ms Singer’s objective is that this list should serve as a basis for future research into the problems of parenting where the parent has Asperger’s Syndrome. But why stop there?

In the spirit of normal isn’t necessarily wonderful, it is apparent that parental frailties are not confined merely to the presence of a label to be found in the DSM IV. Lapses in child rearing practices are legion among the very population, which although it has never been seen anywhere near the psychiatrist’s bible, can be found described in the alternate register, the DSN-IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of 'Normal' Disorders), published by the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical.

Using the following diagnostic criteria for 666.00 Neurotypic Disorder, the potential impact of ‘normal’ characteristics on parental praxis can be delineated.

A. Qualitative impairment in independent social interaction as manifested by the following:

1) Disorder of empathy marked by inability to separate the feelings of self from others.

The child is seen as an emotional extension of the parent [2] and therefore serves as an appropriate mirror for parental emotions and an outlet for fulfilling parental aspirations. Saturday morning at the local soccer field is a suitable venue to view the manifestation of this phenomenon in the large

(2) extreme or abnormal seeking of comfort at times of distress

After many years of modelling that in times of trouble, there should be a grand collective of sympathy and group therapy rather than an appraisal of the actual problems, children will get the idea that when things go wrong, it’s not up to them to fix it. Victimology, courtesy of engineering external loci of control, is rife.
3) Constant imitation

This is the first step in conditioning the child to conform to social norms even where this, rationally, could be considered unwise. An afternoon at the local mall observing the ‘hooker look’ as modelled by the pre-teens and the body piercing of their teenage elders is the perfect way to observe imitation in action.

4) Excessive Social Play

It has long been the contention of the autistic community, that the only perseveration indulged by neurotypicals is socialising. A parental over-emphasis on socialising has the unfortunate side effect of denying children the benefits of solitude; the time to be quiet, to think and to dream. This echoes C.S Lewis’s:[3]
We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship

5) Impairments in peer friendship

Along with conditioning to imitate mindlessly, the child is also taught to make ‘suitable’ friends. This is seen by the parent as crucial if the child is to succeed in life, by attaining the best possible place in the pecking order. Parents regularly sanction those of their children who attempt friendship with weirdos or anybody deemed different, just in case some of the weirdness rubs off. A medium sized school or bureaucracy is the ideal spot to observe the natives in their hierarchical habitat.

B. Qualitative impairment in verbal and nonverbal communication, and in imaginative activity, as manifested by the following:

1) &2) blatant overuse of all modes of communication.

Modelling their parents, children are taught at an early age to over-communicate, possibly as a means of social obfuscation, where if the recipient can’t read the body language because of all the static, so much the better in the standard power game.
3) excessive imaginative irrelevant activity

Parents encourage their children into trivial leisure activities, probably because they themselves can’t see past the Hollywood mentality and the 30-second sound bite style of news programs on television.

4) Abnormalities of speech

This is really a failure of parents to stem overly florid verbal displays. The correct venue to observe this phenomenon is the playground of an all-girls high school, first day back after the term break. Observers are cautioned to wear noise-cancelling headphones to avoid hearing loss from exposure to squeals in the upper register.

5) Distortion of speech content

Here a child is firmly indoctrinated into believing that the packaging is just as important as the contents if not an integral part of the message and with an enormous emphasis on obfuscation of the message to ameliorate any possible disagreement. Political Correctness is the obvious destination of these linguistic acrobatics. Taking the ‘if it sounds good, it must be good’ model just a little further and one ends up in the cloud cuckoo land of postmodernism.

6) Distortion of conversation.

On no account must a child get the idea that conversation is about the exchange of ideas. Conversations, like practically everything else are subordinate to socialising. The topic under discussion must be inclusive of all participants whether or not they have something to contribute, so the more superficial the topic, the better to allow for everyone to have their say. It is considered a faux pas to discuss any one issue for longer than five minutes, less if at all possible. Religion, politics or any issue, which might be considered controversial are out of bounds because someone might get upset at being disagreed with. Of course, the rationale is that the social façade must be maintained at all times, and besides, all ideas have equal validity.

C. Markedly restricted repertoire of activities and interests, as manifested by the following:

1) Obliviousness to details

Children will be taught that it’s only the big picture that really matters. The pesky details can be ignored along with things like accuracy or consistency. The forest is the thing even if all the trees are infested with termites.

2) Process myopia.

Not all parents do this, but I have seen a number insist that how you do something is just as important as the result, which I think must be highly correlated with the desire to conform. Acting always to be a good member of the herd, children will be taught very early that the way the group does things is the ‘right’ way to do it.

3) Pre-occupation with status.

From about four years of age, children are indoctrinated into having the most popular or socially desirable dolls, action men, games etc, so that when they grow up they can be just as competitive as their parents in terms of houses, cars, jobs, fashion or any other one of the gazillion markers of ‘success’. Architectural monstrosities of environmental nihilism, the McMansions, dominating the suburban landscape are superb exemplars of the status game, run riot.

Gentle reader, if more than 10% of the above applies to you, get thee to a therapist. Your offspring is in danger of becoming a lying, passive aggressive, manipulative, emotionally blackmailing, social climbing moron.

1. It was always assumed that Aspar was an entirely legitimate enterprise of those seeking to gain a better understanding of self in the light of their terrible childhood experiences. Unearthed during Aspar’s foray into public policy advocacy, was the fact that if your childhood was not particularly dreadful, then your participation in Aspar was not particularly desirable. A former member wrote:

“The data on children with autistic parents is going to be skewed if you're getting any of it from ASpar.
They have instituted policies barring anyone who is particularly identified with autism, anyone who finds blanket bigoted and extremely rude statements about autistic people offensive, and anyone who finds it hard to gauge social situations from the list. This basically blocks anyone who is autistic and anyone who is NT but cares about autistic people enough to be bothered and say something when these blanket statements are made.
I was on the list near its inception. I have an autistic parent, and I wanted to know what I might appear like to my children if I ever have NT children. My experiences of my (quite compassionate, by the way, more so than most people I've ever met, and extremely faithful to his ethics which include compassion) autistic parent were much more positive than my experiences of my non-autistic parent, and I wanted to be able to share those experiences as well as listen to others', be they positive or negative.”

Realistically, the coin of the realm in Aspar is hatred. Whether it started out that way is a moot point, because it was inevitable that when censorship set in and only the negative gained legitimacy, that negative would be reinforced. There is a kind of macabre element of competition in the social dance for acceptance especially if the correct answers are strictly limited.

2. Singer’s checklist includes the following, which oddly enough raises the same issue across both lists

“Can the AS parent recognise that the child is a separate entity from themselves?”

This checklist is apparently a compilation of the members of Aspar, admittedly a bunch of amateurs with an agenda. Even so, it is the height of lunacy to assign this characteristic to a group renowned for autonomy – and isn’t that the basic problem? This does raise questions about the authenticity of these parents’ diagnoses.

3. C.S. Lewis, Fern-seed and Elephants, Collins, Glasgow 1980, p 12.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

the A Muse: Part 1 The Drive for Central Coherence

Every now and then something you read connects with something you know, provoking a chain of thought that produces something resembling an idea. So these musings are ideas in their embryonic state –developing but no clue yet as to how they’ll end up.

It is said (Frith and Happe, I think) that autistics lack the drive for central coherence - the ability to put facts and experience and feelings, plus a whole lot of non-verbal information together and come up with a ‘big picture’. In contrast, autistics are said to be in the words of one luminary, ‘tyrannised by detail’ – in other words they can’t see the forest for the trees.

Interestingly, this theory flies right in the face of all those autistics, Temple Grandin among them, who have this extraordinary ability to visualise entire systems and if that’s not the big picture then what is? There are differences in the kinds of ‘big picture’ here obviously. One refers to systems and the others, of the kind that Frith and Happe automatically assumed to be universal, have an essential social element. It should be reasonably clear from Simon Baron Cohen’s work, that those who are exceptionally good at systematising really cannot have a significant deficit in finding the big picture at least as far as systems go. Yet again, we have proposed universal deficits - be it central coherence or imagination or even empathy, which on deeper analysis turns out to be only evident in situations calling for social nous. This is the kind of thing that is often called a lack of common sense, which is somewhat more accurate than a lack of central coherence in that it at least acknowledges that the deficit really does lie in seeing things outside of the common way. Mesdames Frith and Happe seem to be lending some indirect support for Baron-Cohen’s theories. It would be interesting to speculate that these researchers and many like them would score exceptionally well as empathisers and less well as systematisers. And this would have implications regarding just how far such empathisers can really empathise with autistic spectrum folk, given their own social biases as it were. Those whose theories have unacknowledged assumptions of social primacy may have very little ‘theory of autistic people’.

Not only are these sorts of deficits only deficits by virtue of context or presupposition, there is no acknowledgement that this drive for central coherence is not always a good thing to have. The old saw goes that some people put two and two together and come up with five. I suspect that the drive for coherence or the urge to make sense of things can lead to an invention of what’s missing in a picture or a deliberate dismissal of seemingly non-concordant data in order to come up with a comprehensible, but by now erroneous, whole. The autistic meanwhile, hung up on all these details that don’t fit is never going to have that problem. They will have other problems to be sure, but not that one.

This drive might also make some people more suggestible. Witness the extraordinary success of the Nigerian scam for example. The conman come smooth operator need only hand someone a plausible framework combined with a suitable incentive such as increased wealth or increased attractiveness to the opposite sex. The mark can then be relied upon to do all the heavy work in making a rosy picture out of very little. Pesky details offering clues to a different scenario will have been pruned, not by the con artist but by his victim.

We all know charismatic people, most of them upright citizens and we marvel or envy their ready charm and the ease with which they seem to relate to such a broad range of individuals. Perhaps their talent lies in being able to read people well enough to present them with the framework most suitable for them to fill in the blanks and think, what a lovely person or what a great idea!

Actually charismatic operators even very upright ones could present problems for even relatively socially skilled ASDs because reliant on the details as they are, they aren’t going to accept just any old ‘fill in the dots’ picture and problems arise when the charismatic person does not get the predicted response of ‘oh what a lovely person’ or ‘good idea’! etc.

An asset or a deficit, presenting people with plausible frameworks seems to me to be one tool for getting round the social world that an autistic could make use of, once he or she gets a handle on how prone people are to fill in the blanks by invention so to speak. They might as well fill in the blanks your way rather than leaving this to blind chance or mere inclination. I am not suggesting that this framework be untrue to the person. Faking it never works for an autistic. But think how lovely it would be if people could be guided into thinking that you are amiable, helpful but shy and really prefer to be left alone and they do!

Monday, October 10, 2005

When an Academic Journal Isn't

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a certain credibility since by virtue of the title alone, it is intimately associated in the minds of readers with the rarefied atmosphere of centres of advanced learning. By default, the reader will take it for granted that what the Chronicle publishes adheres to rigorously enforced academic standards. In brief, the Chronicle trades in trust.

What then is to be done when it becomes apparent that the Chronicle has slipped from its lofty perch to go trawling in the gutters of tabloid journalism. “Nutty Professors,” penned by Dr Mikita Brottman and published by the Chronicle is an article, which follows no recognisable standards, academic or otherwise. The flaws are numerous, obvious and basic.

It is not the content of this article, distasteful though that may be, which is at issue here, but the fact that a supposedly reputable journal could usher into print an article replete with standards of research below deplorable, simple logical fallacies of breath-taking magnitude and the willingness of the author to transgress all the boundaries by making pronouncements she is totally unqualified to make.

The latter point is the one that should have sounded the alarm to a competent editorial board that all was not well with this article. Brottman invokes Asperger’s Syndrome as a suitable label for two past colleagues who failed her ‘collegiality’ test and are therefore good examples of the Nutty Professors, so disruptive to the tranquil life of academia and the subject of this article. Brottman is an instructor of language, literature, and culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, with no qualifications whatsoever as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist with the requisite expertise in the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.

Having been alerted by this anomaly, the editorial staff should have had no difficulty detecting the faulty thinking employed by Brottman. According to Brottman, flaws such as undue frugality or undue insistence on rights and entitlements can be attributed to a class of people by virtue of a label. This is a classic example of errors of inductive reasoning. That this cannot be true, as these flaws are common to the vast run of humanity, was missed entirely by the editors of the Chronicle.

The most egregious of the errors committed by Brottman has to do with her description of Asperger’s Syndrome as a ‘character disorder’. Neither the DSM IV, the psychiatrist’s Bible of mental disorders, or its European counterpoint the ICD 10, recognise any such entity as a ‘character disorder’. There are personality disorders, but Asperger’s is not a personality disorder as the most cursory examination of the DSM IV reveals. No doubt Brottman felt the need to miscast Asperger’s in this way so that she could then talk knowledgeably of the (non-existent) personality traits associated with the Syndrome. Asperger’s Syndrome has nothing to say about the personality traits of the individual. This is a rather fine example of one distortion being used to prop up another.

On publication of this article, representations were made to the President of the Maryland Institute College of Art, who took refuge in citations of ‘academic freedom’. The local Tallahassee newspaper, which ran the article, also cited alternate viewpoints, when representations were made to them. The Chronicle said nothing at all. Neither argument makes any sense, since the spreading of false information is not what either academic freedom or the freedom to have a differing opinion is about. Opinions stem from well-reasoned arguments after all and academic freedom does not include the freedom to peddle prejudicial nonsense.

This article and by extension, Mikita Brottman, are exemplars of the current malaise of preposterism in the academy. Preposterism, a term invented by Jacques Barzun is characterised in Susan Haack’s words by:

“a rising tide of irrationalism, a widespread and increasingly articulate loss of confidence in the very possibility of honest inquiry, scientific or otherwise…...The sham inquirer tries to make a case for the truth of a proposition his commitment to which is already evidence- and argument-proof. The fake inquirer tries to make a case for some proposition advancing which he thinks will enhance his own reputation, but to the truth-value of which he is indifferent.”

Brottman’s article is a fine example of the latter, since the distortions of fact that Brottman employs argue a true indifference to their truth value. And the motive for that indifference is not very far away. Brottman has a book to sell and writing an article, which might be considered controversial but dignified is one way to enhance the author’s reputation and drum up interest in the author’s work. Consequently, the truth value or otherwise of what Brottman actually wrote, was not terribly important, presenting a facsimile of a plausible argument sufficient to raise interest, was.

The Chronicle’s motive for publication of this sub-standard piece was probably its controversial value. Commercially, it makes sense as a means of drumming up reader interest and hopefully increased revenues from subscriptions. Therefore the incentive to look too closely at its rationale was never present. Even the protests that were raised in letters to the Editor (none published) were in one sense good, since there is no such thing as bad publicity if advertising is the purpose of the exercise. But that is not what sustains selling the Chronicle to subscription readers. Publishing interesting pieces is one half of the equation. Having academics regard those articles with respect is the other. Trust is the tradeable commodity. Publishing too many Brottmans undermines that trust in the long run because it gives aid and comfort to the termites in the academy walls, the fake enquirers and their pseudo-scholarship.

Kathleen Seidel has written the definitive appraisal of Brottman's article, which appears on neurodiversity.com at http://neurodiversity.com/weblog/archives/54/autopsy-full-text