Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I never knew that Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who got me interested in brain, titled his book on the reaction of an autistic girl: “I feel like an Anthropologist on Mars”. Ian Hacking, writing in Deadalus, unfurls the trope used to describe autists: aliens; and puts across some nice ideas. Citing a novel, Hacking writes a character as saying:

I used to think: Here are a bunch of kids so brilliant, so truly ahead of us intellectually, they came out of the womb, took one look around this screwed-up world and said to themselves, Good-bye. I’ll go on living, but not here. Not on this planet.

This metaphorical use of aliens to capture what an autist is little discomforting, displacing the idea of neurodiversity. Hacking puts it better: “Some people find the trope of the alien a powerful way to state the obvious, while others find it odious.” And he goes on to say that “The trope of the alien, then, is symmetric: autistic people are aliens; or neurotypicals are aliens for autistic people.”

Autism, on the top of it, doesn’t have a known cause/cure. What we generally think autists are missing out is that they cannot understand other’s minds, so easy for neurotypicals to do (say, knowing in advance what would be the reaction to your question). Our brains keep preparing for what’s coming next, so to say. Ah! I’m so wrong. Here is Hacking at it better:

“…it is common to distinguish three groups of difficulties experienced by autistic children, namely, social and linguistic difficulties and fixedness; these persist in various degrees through life… but there are many other aspects of autism, some more physical than mental. Many people with autism have (a) various kinds of disadvantage in social interactions with neurotypicals.

Most important… are problems [in] understanding what other people are doing, thinking, and feeling. Many cannot read your state of mind from your body language in the way that most children can. [But this does not meant] that autists lack a Theory of Mind…[but that many] do not immediately know what another person is doing and have to work it out from clues. This is one part, but an essential one, of a larger canvas of difficulties in human relationships, including those within the family

In addition, many autistic children have (b) difficulties acquiring spoken language, to the point that some are mute for life, and many (c) are upset by change. They take what is said literally. They do not understand pretending, and they do not play, even alone, in the ways in which most children do [or fixedness, so to say]… A diagnosis on the autistic spectrum demands that at least two of these three deficits, or differences, are apparent.

Hacking goes on to ask how we infer about others minds and traces the history of this idea back to William James/Bertrand Russell. They thought this is by analogy: I can tell about your mind because I know my mind. But:

We do not infer other minds by analogy; instead, we come equipped with a Theory of Mind module, a faculty for attributing mental states to other people. This has become a canonical part of psychology, much preferred to models of analogy or inference. The idea was inaugurated by David Premack and Guy Woodruff studying chimpanzees. Quickly it led in 1983 to the false-belief tests devised by Heinz Wimmer and Josef Perner. Autistic children fare poorly on these tests, which require thinking about what other people believe, given the evidence that they possess. Thanks to Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan Leslie, and Uta Frith, among others, the tests have joined the arsenal for diagnosing autism.”

So, Hacking deduces that what makes us (more) human(e) is not rationality but “emotional life”: grasping each other’s intentions, motivations, feelings, needs, etc. to conclude, I remember a noted autist using YouTube to tell the world what she felt (by using a special keyboard as well): Internet is a place not only for blokes like to survive but for autists to thrive.

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