Saturday, November 3, 2007

Understanding of Emotional Experience in Autism

In “The Synaptic Self”, we learn that memory is accompanied by emotional components. The limbic system has long been associated with memory and emotion although some scientists believe that we should abandon the limbic system theory entirely (but then where does that leave us? Back to square one?). Emotion is what sparks our brains to record a memory. This reminds me of Floyd Skloot’s mother retaining an abundance of music; I can imagine her singing jollily all day at the nursing home. Songs were the last thing her Alzheimer’s erased. I am also thinking of Hazel in “The Missing World” because even though she lost a good portion of her memory, she still remembered Jonathan. I suppose this is in the realm of complex emotion, because we cannot really label the way this music made Lillian feel or what emotional attachment Hazel had to Jonathan, but generally, such strong emotions explain such strong memory.

In the psychology article (“Understanding of Emotional Experience in Autism: Insights from the Personal Accounts of High-Functioning Children with Autism”), they tested children on the higher end of the autistic spectrum to discover their knowledge of emotion. Some kids seemed to confuse embarrassment and guilt with anger and sadness and some interpreted happiness as surprise or being proud. It is not that they lack or do not have emotion; it is that they can not decipher their feelings or understand complex emotion. This is troublesome to me, in terms of memory. What kind of affect does this have on their ability to remember? What is important enough for the brain to absorb and what situations get discarded because there is not a strong enough emotional connotation? Autistic children suffer from tremendous disadvantages. You begin to mold who you are in youth, your social interactions depend on the transfer of emotion. Children respond to clear cut emotions and will probably gravitate towards someone who would be cheery all the time. What they might not respond so well to is a child who does not portray emotion much or very well. Again, because most children (sorry for generalizing so much) think in clear cut and concrete terms, they may automatically label that child as “weird”. On Wednesdays, I work in a second grade classroom with children who have special needs and I see this happening all the time. It kills me to see one boy outcasted because he doesn’t know how express himself properly. The rest of the class may not even outwardly feel opposition towards him, but they cannot relate to him in any way, so they all become distanced from him. Everything we took with ease as children, learning, making friends, developing personality based on everything around us and what we like or dislike, seems like it becomes a thousand times more difficult for autistic children.

The essays by Lyde Sizer were beautiful and honest. Reading a first person account of something is always very helpful. The main thing I wondered throughout the entirety of that reading was about the weight Lyde carried of her son’s disadvantage. Has Ryland ever articulated or attempted to describe his feelings about his disadvantages? Lyde seemed more embarrassed and ashamed than Ryland was (not that we saw too much of him in the essays). When Jay’s friend is gently playing with Ryland, Lyde is bothered by the fact that the flapping visibly enforces his autism to the world. Initially, I felt like it was a huge blow to her ego that her son was autistic. In relation, I think I would have to ask her if she has gotten close to other parents with autistic children since Ryland’s birth. I wonder if they collectively all went through the same grieving process. What are the things he responds to above all? Is his memory largely affected by his Autism? Does he have his own ways to show his emotions? How does he show his love for her?


Madeline said...

I agree with you about Lyde's essays - I loved them. I was particularly affected when she wrote about what she foresaw for Ryland - him being outcast, never being able to live a "normal" life, etc. - and how tragic that was. She was aware that he could very well become like the boy in your second grade class. Surrounded by neurotypical children, an autistic child stands out considerably. On the other hand, I'm not sure whether it helps for autistic children to be grouped together; it seems that the varying levels of disability in all the different children would make it very difficult for certain children to learn - and very difficult for the teacher to teach them all.

I was also affected when Lyde talked about how impossible it seemed that she and her husband could produce a child that might never read. I was interested by her point that the parents of "normal" children take their child's neurotypicality for granted, or assume that their child's intelligence is a result of good upbringing or genes. I think it's incredibly important for parents of autistic children to know that even two (former) Harvard professors could have an autistic child - that it isn't anyone's "fault" and does not reflect badly on the parents.

I think what you wrote about children - that they "respond to clear cut emotions" - is really insightful. Children, being inexperienced in social relationships, rely on what they know intuitively. Most children can discern other children's emotions intuitively. They have not, however, been taught "social graces" or how to react to someone who is different. Later on we learn that it is rude to blatantly outcast or ridicule someone with a disability. However, it is true that many disabled adults still feel outcast and ridiculed, by other adults. I think we need to re-examine whether we ever do learn how to behave towards people with disabilities.

Lauren S said...

I was also struck by the memory/emotions link as described both by LeDoux and Losh and Capps, and wondered, in chicken/egg fashion, if autistic children have trouble with emotions because of their impaired episodic memories, or trouble with their episodic memories because of their difficulty with emotions? (Sacks did mention in a footnote to "Anthropologist" that some autistic people remember details from their first and second years of life, which I can't quite reconcile with impaired episodic memory....) I also wondered how large a factor the amygdala is (are?) in autism (Temple Grandin believed it was an important factor). And this is probably a stretch, but how much of a role does fear play in all other emotions? Especially negative emotions, such as anger, embarrassment, jealousy, but isn't there even some fear in love? I guess not when you're in the moment of feeling love, but when you think about love, fear questions can arise. (This reminds me of another post where I said--somewhat jokingly--that all learning was based in fear. Maybe I'm just a very fearful person....) But it makes sense that understanding fear can help us understand other emotions. (I wondered, in the last section of the LeDoux chapter, why animal research on love dealt only with sexual/romantic love: Can we not assume that a dog's wagging tail or a cat's purr is a display of love? Not that I want dogs and cats experimented on unneccesarily, but what if a dog's brain could be scanned when his beloved owner walks in the room after a separation? Might that tell us something about the brain and emotion?)

Sizer's essays were poignant, heartbreaking at times, and provided great insight on what it means to be the parent of an autistic child. I especially appreciated her honesty. She brought up a lot of things we've discussed in class, such as the role of labels on identity, and, regarding memory, her statement that "I also remember Jim's hand, warm and dry and comforting; it's very present in my memory of that day" in relating the first visit to the psychologist. She raised an important question in "Grief" where she asked what mothers without her resources did for their autisitc children. What is the answer to that? What happens to those children?

" much of who we are is defined by our emotions..." LeDoux wrote at the end of Chapter 8. What does that mean for autistic people and others with disorders that affect their emotions? LeDoux's explanation of how things we're not even conscious of can stimulate our fear response has left me feeling a little unmoored. How many things that we're not aware of happen to us, become part of our identities? Are our autobiographies as much about moments we never processed as those we think we remember vividly?

sophie Auster said...

I also was struck by the part in Lyde's essay where Ryland is thrown into a classroom with highly autistic children. It seems that it would be more benificial if he could be with non autistic children as well. I was very interested in the "Contact" essay. I found it very moving how Lyde describes her childrens need to be close to one another- how they intertwined their legs together and how Grayson needed Ryland's warm feet before bedtime. She can comfort herself with the fact that she has a very intimate and close connection to her children. As she points out in her "Contact" essay, there are plenty of autistic children who can't be touched and I think this is one of the most tragic affects of autism. Yet, as much as I admire Lyde for her strength to come forward with her story, I think that she put too much presure on herself to fill some kind of "perfect" mother role. Perfect doesn't exist and as Madeline said, it isn't anyone's fault for having an autistic child. I was actually rather shocked at the amount of blame Lyde put on herself. But I am not a mother and I have no clue what it is like to have a child with a disability.

maggie said...

I think that this curiosity of the emotional functioning of Autistic people is important and endlessly fasinating but only one part of what the readings were getting at. Many of us were moved by Sizer's essays. Her intense emotional reaction to Rylands diagnosis and disorder made us feel for her and Ryland. Sizer's poignant and dismal essays, as well as the reaction of them by the class, points out the importance of examining the emotional effects of Autism on parents and those around Autistic people. The essay's were less about Ryland's emotional processing, but were more so about Lyde's. She has no disfuction in the realations of her amygdala and her hippocampus or medial prefrountal cortex, but her connection to Autism still cause a huge riff in her emotional processing. In many ways she becomes inballanced and almost seems like she decreses the value, love, and appreciation, a mother she typically have for their child. She is forced to examine her self and her ideas of success. In many ways the emotional disordering that happen in Autism is not just contained in the brain of those diagnosed, it also permeates into the minds of those close to people with Autism.