Saturday, November 3, 2007


Autism seemed to be the main focus in these readings, but I also related them to a mind and its secrets. With the readings of Sizer I was really placed in a world outside of myself. I have many questions and to things I am not sure I'll find a way to understand as much as I would like. I really respect Sizer for sharing her story, it takes a lot of courage and I look forward to her speaking. Last week in class we talked a lot about the spectrum of austim, that is the part that is so difficult, it is not completely one thing, its many things that make up an idea of something because even the 'common' characteristics aren't universal.
I liked Sizer's writing style, we are placed in her situation but from a different angle, and maybe that also has to do with the ambiguity of autism. It is about a mother, a person, who has questions about a continuing life. She has similar questions that we would have about our own lives, but they are transferred not to someone else as advice, but to someone else through thought and out of hope. I wanted to know more about how autism is accepted, how taboo it is in society or others' reactions to the disorder. There are many other disorders that have reputations for being associated with other things, where in society it is easier to place them into boxes. For example children with down syndrome, questions pertaining to the age and health of the mother arise. ADD,schizophrenia, depression --- I know these things don't fall into the same categories, but they accompany ways of dealing whether it be through diet, attitude, approach, treatment. It seems with autism education and communication is key to development and nourishment -- maybe that is why I have such hope, because it is so mysterious.
In the LeDoux chapter about the amygdala, I thought about this secret mind, and the question of whether or not the amygdala has anything to do with emotions. Maybe I didn't read it correctly, but wouldn't fear be based on nothing if the amygdala didn't have some sort of a relationship with emotions?
'The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray.' - Oscar Wilde
This is key in the question linking emotion and fear because we are led astray because of the emotional attachment people have to fear. Then this lead me to a question about autism; can people with autism react to fear? How many places in the brain are affected or does that vary as well? I guess the thing I realized with these readings is how many questions I still have about these ideas. I have been thinking a lot about SLC and the way that the school works and the way the people work. As a school SAT's are not required, we are smart kids with or without them, but for most people it makes them nervous. Why wouldn't these tests, over and over again, make a child with autism nervous, having them perform worse in a disorders eyes? What is a true representation of autism? Is it like gaining a memory where things will continue to come and go and situations arise and opportunities are taken for no rhyme or reason?

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?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Parallel Play and Prodigies

After reading Tim Page’s article, Parallel Play, and Sachs’ chapter, Prodigies, I was immediately struck by the different degrees of aspergers syndrome and autism. For example Tim writes: “Caring for inanimate objects came easily. Learning to make genuine connections with people—much as I desperately wanted them—was a bewildering process.” For Tim, he mourned his inability to interact with people in society and was very hurt as a child by his teacher’s frustration with him. In contrast to Page’s account, Sachs writes that Stephen really didn’t have much connection with people and was not aware of any kind of deficit in his emotional capabilities. Sachs writes: “Other people held no apparent meaning for him [Stephen] except to fulfill some immediate unspoken need; he treated them like objects” (197). When Stephen’s mentor Chris Marris can no longer be there for him, Stephen seemingly doesn’t hold any emotional attachment to the man who had been in his life for so long. For most normal children this would have been a great loss and sadness, yet Stephen appeared completely devoid of any feeling for his long time companion. However when Margaret falls ill, due to an asthma attack, Stephen actually is very distressed and stays by her bed. This was very striking to me. Is it possible that through Stephen’s artistic expression that he is actually more open to human relationships? It is unclear as Sachs writes, but it is still interesting to pose the question of how much Stephen actually can penetrate? He laughs and is amused, but by what? Is it random laughter or is he actually connected to someone or something?
Finally, the saddest account was Christopher Gillberg’s encounter with a fifteen-year old autistic boy who had lost his mother to cancer. The boy is unable to grieve his mother’s death, but can logistically explain that he has no sense of loss because of his Asperger syndrome. It is almost more terrible to be able to be aware of your problem than oblivious. This made me think of Zazetsky and Dr. P, who are both suffering from similar disorders, yet one is painfully aware and the other oblivious. Throughout all these accounts it is apparent that there are many varieties of autism and none can be neatly categorized.

Unconscious Cognitive Processes

In Sack's chapter on Prodigies, I was alarmed by his descriptions of how their special abilities are carried out. This was shown with the "calculators" and with Stephan. With the former, Sacks explains how not only are they unaware of the methods used to arrive at their answers, but that people with this ability seem to store such problems in an unconscious part of their minds and work out the answers there. The idea that someone can come up with ANY mathmatical answer intuitively makes me uneasy, let alone the level of difficulty and long numbers they can work with. They arent using their working memory, they arent using our ideas of reasoning.

I was reminded of mathmetical tests that have been done on infants that show a basic mathmatical sense. This is done by observing surprise and how long babies look at objects to infer what babies expected to see juxtaposed with what what they find in front of them. These are very basic mathmatical concepts, however, and suggest an abstract mathmatical and spacial understanding rather than a numerical one, which is what the calculators show.

We saw how Stephen's artistic process was similar to the calculators' processes when Sack's is told that while Stephen is drawing, he does not need to worry about distractions. He seems to simply absorb the visual information in front of him as he "bestowed a quick, indifferent look at my house--there hardly seemed to be any act of attention." His "transcription" is similar to the calculators in that he can converse while working and outside distractions cannot deter the process in anyway. Concentration does not work in the way that it does in the "normal" mind, where any distractions in our trains of thought may cause us to forget the information we are temporarily holding. Stephen and other savants work out of their own realm of understanding, which processes and stores information independently of a guiding and controlling "self". Perhaps these processes are heightened in the autistic because the information is not first filtered through the connections that the "self" makes, which temporarily discards information in order to see the big picture.

The part that makes me uneasy is that this means all of us with "normal" brains really do have cognitive processes that we are unaware of, though they are not as well developed as in the savants. To what extent can we tap into them, to what extent are we unconsciously controlled by them? Awww man, I hate Freud!