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Autism: Disease or The New Normal?

Posted: Tue, January 01, 2013 | By: TJL-2080



The rise in reported cases of people being born with conditions on the Autism Spectrum indicate a possible evolutionary trait: a mutation that enhances the ability of the most powerful tool the human animal has – its mind. Instead of working toward a cure for ASD, we should be harnessing the collective power of these genius minds to fundamentally change our society. We need to evolve or die.

In an article I wrote for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, I asked a very important question. Perhaps the most important question for anybody who proclaims themselves to be a transhumanist. It is also perhaps the oldest question posed in philosophy, art, science and religion. This question has only four words. “What makes us human?”

In that article, I explained how I looked around for a definition of the word “human.” Here is what the dictionary says…

hu·man/ˈ(h)yo͞omən/

Adjective:

Of, relating to, or characteristic of people or human beings.

Noun:

A human being, esp. a person as distinguished from an animal or (in science fiction) an alien.

Synonyms:

adjective.  Humane

noun.  man - person - human being - individual - soul – mortal

Does you see a problem here?  If you remember all the way back to grade school, you may remember the rule about defining a word. You can NOT use a word to define itself. In other words, you can’t say “a tree is a treelike object.”  You can’t say “A book is shaped like a book.” You can say “a tree is a plant that ranges in size with a wooden trunk and branches and leaves that vary depending on the species.” You can say that “a book is a small, rectangular object that contains words printed on paper pages and bound by either a soft or hard cover.” So WHY is the agreed-upon definition of “human,” “a human being?”

So I had to do some reading and some out-of-the-box thinking. I came across a great article by Eliezer Yudkowski titled “The Power of Intelligence” which plainly explains something in a way I hadn’t thought of before. Let’s go back about five million years.

Out on the dry, desert plains of Africa a new species began to develop. It didn’t have razor-sharp fangs or claws to catch prey. It didn’t have a hard shell or exoskeleton to protect it from predators or the environment. It wasn’t able to change colors like a chameleon to blend in with its environment and hide from any threats. It was small. It was naked. It was defenseless. It was really yummy! Anybody with a passing understanding of natural selection, hell, anybody who has even heard the name of Charles Darwin, understands that this species absolutely could NOT survive more than a few generations against the leopards, hyenas, sabretoothed cats, or any other carnivorous beast out there. Looking objectively at this situation, I defy anybody to expect that that weak, unprepared, unequipped, hairless ape species would make it out of this. And not just survive, but flourish. And not just flourish, but grow to become the dominant creature on the planet.

In a world that is dominated by natural selection, this species had to have something that set it apart from other animals. It had to have developed something that could make it uniquely suited to survival. In this case, the species developed a brain capable of higher levels of thought and awareness and problem solving.  Logic.  Our brains - our cognitive ability – is what set the human animal on the path to becoming such a dominant force. Our brains gave us the ability to make tools, weapons, art, technology, things to make our world better for us.

Or worse. In its infinite wisdom, the universe sought to give us this powerful, 3-pound lump of flesh to use for making great things. Great buildings, powerful works of art, literature, music and film. But the universe likes things to be balanced. And every great work of humankind has been balanced by our cunning ability to create powerful evil. This is not some great new insight that I am wowing you all with. This is pretty elementary stuff here, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that E=MC2, while changing science and physics as we knew it also gave us what we needed to create the most powerful form of destruction ever known in the atomic bomb.

So it is our brain, as well as our opposable thumb, that made us who we are. We have conquered the Earth. We are taking our first steps into space and other planets. We are unlocking the mysteries of science, life, and the universe. We are the pinnacle of evolution, right?

Well I don’t think anybody told the universe that.

The big fallacy that I come across, more often than I care to admit, is that humans as we are now, are the result of millions of years of evolution, that we are the top dog, that we are the endgame. And I always look at the people that say this and I ask them “How do you know?”

How do we know? Evolution is a long process. The Earth has been spinning here for 4 and a half BILLION years. Homo sapiens has only been on it for about 100,000 years. And we’ve only reached civilization for about 10,000 years. And we’ve only lived in an industrialized society for what, 150-200 years? We only dropped out of the trees about ten minutes ago, and we have the nerve to say that we are done evolving?

Anybody that uses even a tenth of the power of this amazing 3-pound tool in our heads can see that this is an absolutely stupid thought. It’s ridiculous that we are the most evolved thing here, and more so that we are DONE evolving.

Since we do not have to fight for our food, or our lives, or our mates anymore, people think that we don’t have any further to evolve. But they don’t understand that we ARE still evolving, just not in an outwardly physical way. Our brains, the very thing that evolved to make our species survive, flourish and dominate, don’t want to just stop where they are. They are not happy just sitting there, collecting their retirement and watching the ballgame.

Our brains are not stagnant. They are not sitting still. We are not stuck in a cognitive swamp with no new thoughts or ideas coming in…

My point is that evolution is not stopping for anything. It is a process that is always looking for ways to improve things. It’s looking at us and saying, well, they don’t need claws. They don’t need hard shells. They don’t need to change colors. They don’t need to be able to run at 50 miles per hour. But HEY! They’ve got this neat little thing in their heads that they’ve put to good use. Let’s see if we can improve on that a little.

I believe that our brains are STILL evolving. There is a lot we don’t know about them. Brains are pretty difficult to understand. I’m sure Ben Goertzel can tell you how hard it is to figure out and replicate the way a brain works.

But not all brains work the same.

Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo da Vinci, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Albert Einstein, and a whole host of other people I don’t have the room to mention all shared something. Although they all specialized in different fields and lived at different times, they were all seen as being somehow different than their peers. It is said they worked on a different level than the top minds of their times. They revolutionized politics, art, technology, music, science and so much more.

And they were all autistic. We think. Of course, we can’t confirm it, and they aren’t here now to confirm or deny it, but the writings of the people who knew them and described them in detail show certain characteristics that, if they lived today, would result in their being diagnosed with conditions on the Autism Spectrum. For those of you who are still uncertain or need a refresher, here is a quick rundown of what autism is, and what it is not…

Autism is a neurological disorder, most likely spread genetically through the father’s lineage, which manifests in different ways. The common bond is that the wires are figuratively crossed in the mind, and sensory input is processed in different ways. For instance, while most people would find the feel of velvet to be soft and pleasant, an autistic person may find that touching it causes extreme discomfort or even pain. The faint buzzing sound of a fluorescent light is easily dismissed by a neurotypical person, but an autistic person may find the sound excruciating. And there are various conditions and symptoms, all related and placed under the umbrella term of “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Outward signs include self-stimulating behaviors, such as spinning in circles, humming, repetitive speech patterns and so on.  Extremely underdeveloped social skills are a key factor in the diagnosis of autism. Autism is NOT spread through immunizations, nor can it be cured by a special diet or medication. I’ve met parents who claim their autistic child’s behaviors improved for a while after an oxygen deprivation treatment. I think anybody would act different after one of those. As of now, there is no cure, although a great deal of research is being put into discovering the causes and cure of autism spectrum disorders. And that should bring you up to speed on that.

But I have a different idea, one that I’ve only spoken of briefly to a few people, and never written about or posed publicly before today. Autism is not a disease. Autism is not a disorder. It does not need to be cured, and it does not have to be looked upon as a handicap.

Disclaimer!

For the purposes of this article, I have to be clear that I am talking about high-functioning people with autism. Savants and people with Asperger’s Syndrome. There are a great many people with autism who are entirely non-verbal or unable to communicate in any way. They are often misdiagnosed as severely retarded and go to special schools or homes. For people with this magnitude of autism, life is extremely difficult, as it is for their caregivers. I do think research must continue into treatment for severe autism. Again, my talk today regards those of the higher-functioning status. So with that out of the way, let’s move on…

High-functioning people with ASD often have specialized interests, which can be all-consuming. It is difficult to get them to discuss any subject outside of their narrow range of interest. They remember minor details and can spout off the minutiae of the subject in extreme detail. For instance, let’s talk about a child who we will call Jerry. Jerry is a student in a school district I used to teach in. This district had a revolutionary policy of incorporating high-functioning students with autism into their regular classes. There are a lot of flaws with this policy, which I will get into a little later. Jerry was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and his all-consuming interest was dinosaurs. If you asked him a question about the weather, he would start by answering your question, then get into details about how the weather has changed since the Cretaceous Period, and then talk about which dinosaurs were dominant in this area at the time and so forth.  The downside to the arrangement with the school district was that the child was placed in a general education class, where the teacher was unable to give Jerry the one-on-one attention he needed. So he was placed in a desk at the back of the room and left to his own devices, while rest of the class went along with the curriculum.

I went to that class as a substitute one day, and the teacher left a note saying that I was not to expect any work to come from Jerry, and not even to really assign him anything. Or ask him questions. Or even really acknowledge his existence. At one point the rest of the class was to write a classic five-paragraph essay. The prompt was to imagine that their class was going on a field trip to any time or any place in the past. Jerry sat there, looking bored as the rest of the class worked, or pretended to work, on their essays. After a while, I went up to Jerry and I asked if he would like to participate in the assignment. Some of the students nearby let out little gasps of shock when I did this.  Jerry was stunned, and asked me why I wanted him to do it. I told him that I was interested to know where he would take the class if they had a time machine. I told him not to worry about turning the assignment in on time or to worry too much about spelling and grammar, if that stuff was difficult. I just wanted to know what he wanted to write about. I found a pencil and some paper and handed them to him. The rest of the day, while the rest of the class moved on to math, science, history and so forth, Jerry sat at his desk in the back of the room. At the end of the day, he handed in his five-paragraph essay. It was started out as a detailed explanation of the time machine and how it worked, then how it would take them to a specific time. I can’t remember now if it was the Cretaceous, Jurassic or another period, but he began to explain in great detail everything they would see. The plant life, the volcanoes, the dinosaurs, the insects, the weather. Every piece of information stored in this boy’s head about his favorite subject came out into this small book of twenty-odd pages, complete with illustrations and diagrams. And it only took him a few hours.  Jerry was very proud of himself, and he even had gained some of the respect of his classmates, who were asking to read it.

A few days later, I was back at that school, working in a different classroom. During my lunch break, Jerry’s teacher approached me, with her hands on her hips. “What did you say to Jerry the other day?”

“Um, nothing, really. Why?” Mind you, I was still new to this job, and I was very concerned with how well I was doing.

“You must have said something to him to get him to do all that work. He never does anything. He is really just a disruption to the rest of the class. How the hell did you get him to do that?”

I took a second, then came back at her with the only response I could think of.

“I asked him to do it.”

The point is that many high-functioning autistic people have an incredible ability to apply their incredible brainpower in amazing ways. If Einstein truly was autistic, and all signs point that he was, then his brain was working on an enhanced level, and, much like Jerry, his knowledge on certain subjects was all-consuming. This is the man who revolutionized physics, who gave us the means to unlock the mysteries of the universe and devised the Theory of Relativity. But did you know that this man could not even count money? He could do amazing calculations regarding gravity and movement and time, but he had difficulty with simple math. Yet, when focused on his area of expertise, he was able to change the world.

Is evolution working to make us more specialized? Are our brains developing to make us all super-geniuses, even if only in one subject? Will our descendants all be savants and prodigies? I think some signs are pointing in that direction.

I recently posted a survey on numerous transhumanist websites. It was based on the GARS-2 test given to people by psychologists to determine if there is enough information to diagnose someone with an autism spectrum disorder. My idea was that, given the amount of science and technology in the field of transhumanist studies, and with the high amount of crossover into science fiction and other geekdoms, would there be a higher rate of H+ people who show two or more symptoms of ASD? Unfortunately, a lot of people were offended by the mere suggestion, and even though the post, which was seen on numerous websites as well as Facebook, was viewed hundreds of times, I only received four completed surveys. Of course that is not enough to even begin to make a real study out of.

The rate of children who are being diagnosed with Autism and ASD has risen exponentially in the last few years. Even taking into account what I feel are erroneous diagnoses of children who are just shy or unpopular or who may have other conditions with similar symptoms, like Schizoid Personality Disorder, I still see the curve here, and it bears no small resemblance to something Kurzweil would like. Either way, what we see is that every year, the percentage of children being diagnosed with Autism is increasing. Instead of one or two people whose brains are working on an entirely different level, we see hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people who have amazing mental abilities. The current estimate is that one out of every 88 children being born today has an autism spectrum disorder. What I see when I look at a graph like this is not a disease or something that needs to be fixed or cured. I see evolution. And I see it when I look at Jerry, or Temple Grandin, or Mozart or da Vinci or Einstein. I see it when I watch my son playing the piano like a trained musician, composing songs and playing difficult melodies at the age of six. And I see it when I look in the mirror. I do not have a disease. I do not have an affliction. I may not act or think exactly like a quote-unquote normal person. But the numbers are growing. And it appears to me that this trend will continue.

So what do we do with all these people who, if my hypothesis is true, are the next step? If they are cognitively different from those who would teach them, what can we do to make them normal, functioning members of society? Perhaps the answer is that we don’t. Instead of forcing them to act like everyone else, maybe we should learn a little from them. Maybe we should harness their amazing brains and use them, together, in teams perhaps. Think tanks of high-functioning autistic people could come up with ideas, strategies for fundamentally changing this world. Instead of putting them to the side, like Jerry was in his class, we should be looking to them for help. To give us the tools we need to step forward ourselves. Perhaps, like Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci, we could look to them as leaders and follow them into a bright new future.

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Comments:

I attempted to write this in accordance with your guidelines; polite, friendly and on topic. I tried to be polite and friendly, and while the author or site admins may not agree with my points I am conveying them in the kindest way possible.

Whoever wrote this should review their writing.

“Does you see a problem here?”

Yes, yes I do.

“Brains are pretty difficult to understand.”

Just one example of the plethora of overly simple sentences the author uses. This one just happened to be my favorite. This whole article is written with overly simple sentences, and commas are severely underused.

“And they were all autistic. We think.”

Please name more people (and end the list with “and a whole host of other people I don’t have the room to mention”) and define their work with a blanketed statement assuming it was because they were all Autistic. This statement almost sickens me.

“And there are various conditions and symptoms(...)”

Another sentence starting with “and”, just in case you missed the others.

I’m not going to critique anything in the article past the disclaimer, because this is where I stopped reading. Normally I don’t nitpick this much, but this article attempts to

Cover a very complex subject,

Fails to do so even in small part,

Attempts to convince the reader of the authors beliefs,

and Comes off as a poorly written high school term paper.

As a man with an autistic family member, this article offends me on many levels. Is there a slight possibility that autism can be some sort of evolutionary progress? Sure, but the author is in no way knowledgeable enough to try to prove it, and even science doesn’t know enough that we can yet believe this; if we ever do. The author has failed as a researcher and as a writer, and to take anything this author says as even a semi-truth would be a gross mistake on the part of the reader.

 

By Anonymous on Jan 01, 2013 at 8:24am

Anon,

This article is adapted from a speech I gave at the Extreme Futurist Festival in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago. While giving the speech, I had slides that showed numbers, statistics, etc. The text here does not seem to completely reflect some of the things that were lost in translation.

That being said, let me respond to some of your points.

“Does you see a problem here?” The original version of the sentence in the speech was “Does anyone see a problem here?” However, I thought that would sound awkward in an article, so I put the more personal “you” in its place, and I missed changing the “Does.” I’m sorry you find a simple typo to be so offensive.

Yes, a few sentences start with “And.” So? I’m sure you do that in your normal, everyday speech patterns as well. Remember, this was a speech.

In terms of my writing style, it is just that - a style. Let’s discuss your comment about my “poorly written high school term paper.”  I have a degree in English, Creative Writing, and I have written many academic papers over the course of many years. Sometimes, I feel it is easier to get a point across to the audience if the style is a little more conversational. I could show off my extensive vocabulary and talk circles around people, but they would slog through the article and perhaps wonder what I was trying to say. I’m not “dumbing it down,” it’s just the way I feel most comfortable writing. I’m sure Hank can vouch that my articles here and on other websites have gotten quite a lot of views and started more than a few discussions.

Now that typos and style (which seemed to irk you more than it should) are out of the way, let’s talk about the actual meat of the paper.

Oh, wait, you didn’t read it. You stopped at the disclaimer.

You may be a man with an autistic family member, but I don’t know anything about you beyond that. I am autistic. My son is autistic. I have worked in schools in special education classes, and I have gotten to know high- and low-functioning autistic children. If you had bothered to read beyond the disclaimer, there is an anecdote about one of these children. My training, schooling, classroom experience and personal struggles with autism have given me a pretty good idea what I’m talking about here.

You say I am not knowledgeable enough to “prove” my hypothesis. I mention in the article (that you refused to finish) that I couldn’t even think of a way to test it. Which is why I call it a hypothesis, not a theory or a fact. I am not a scientist. Of course I am not qualified to prove anything. Are you?

I’d like you to go back and finish reading the article. If you still disagree, or are offended, please tell me. But it had better have something to do with the actual content of the article, not petty squabblings about the style or the one typo in the entire thing.How about my final paragraph? Do you find the idea interesting?

TJL-2080

By Travis James Leland on Jan 01, 2013 at 2:44pm

Autistic Behavior Linked to Several Brain Damaged Areas in Children with Tuberous Sclerosis

Share:
St. Paul, Minn. – More than one area of the brain is responsible for autistic behavior in children with tuberous sclerosis and brain lesions, according to an article published in the October 9 issue of Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The study included 26 children with tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC), a genetic disorder that causes benign lesions or tumors to form in many different organs, including the brain where the lesions are called “tubers.” Autism is a common occurrence in children with TSC.

Researchers used MRI and PET exams to study how the brain lesions resulted in common behaviors of autism including difficulties in social interaction and communication, and narrow and repetitive stereotyped behavior.

“We wanted to know if where the tuber was located or what it was “doing” in the brain could predict behaviors of autism,” said Diane C. Chugani, PhD, a researcher at the PET Center at Children’‘’‘s Hospital of Michigan, Detroit, Michigan. “We found that in these children, autism results from a complex combination of events in different parts of the brain, rather than from one single source.”

For example, Chugani said the study showed biochemical abnormalities in the brain’‘s outer layer (the cortex) had a major impact on the children’‘s communications skills. However, changes in the brain regions beneath the cortex (subcortical circuits) resulted in the development of stereotypical behaviors and lack of social interaction.

The study of autism in children with TSC and other specific genetic disorders will provide clues about the causes of autism in general, said Chugani.

By Hillary Hocher on Jan 02, 2013 at 5:20am

THURSDAY, Nov. 29 (HealthDay News)—Brain scans done on groups of men with autism show distinct differences in both the volume of specific regions and the activity of cells that signal a possible immune response, two new studies suggest.

Scientists in England and Japan used MRI and PET (positron emission tomography) scans to examine brain-based anatomical and cellular variations in those with autism. But the disparities—while offering a deeper glimpse into the little-understood developmental disorder—raised more questions about its cause and treatment that only further research can answer.

“There’s really strong evidence now that the immune system appears to be playing a role in autism, but we just don’t know what that role is,” said Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks, who was not involved in either study. “There is such an urgent need for more research to understand the causes and more effective treatment for autism. Autism has really become a public health crisis, and we need to respond to this by greatly increasing the amount of research conducted so we can help families find answers.”

The studies were published online in this week’s issue of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.

Affecting one in 88 children in the United States, autism is characterized by pervasive problems in social interaction and communication, as well as repetitive and restricted behavioral patterns and interests.

The Japanese study examined the brains of 20 men with autism using PET scans to focus on so-called microglia. These are cells that perform immune functions when the brain is exposed to “insults” such as trauma, infection or clots. The PET images indicated excessive activation of microglia in multiple brain regions among those with autism when compared to a group of people without the disorder.

By Hillary Hocher on Jan 02, 2013 at 5:27am

sooo… science is telling us that autism is caused by Brain Damage.

If the ‘next step in human evolution’ is ... brain damage… than we better be investing in more public short bus routes!  And they better be self driving vehicles, as no one will be left who can manage to drive them!

Mental Retardation, it is the ‘Extreme Future!’  The Singularity is thick tongued and bushy haired!  I for one Welcome Our New Mongoloid Overlords!

By Hillary Hocher on Jan 02, 2013 at 7:20am

sooo…. ‘Brain Damage’ is the ‘New Normal’?  This might explain a few things about Current Events and all around recent pop culture….Will the EXTREME FUTURE have even _more_ ... brain damage? My money says Yes!  Say Yes to Brain Damage, It is the FUTURE!

By Ben Dover on Jan 02, 2013 at 10:01am

On the point of putting High Functioning children in mainstream school, I think the problem in Jerry’s case was not putting him in mainstream school, but the way it was done. When my son went back into mainstream after spending some time in a special unit where his was taught about himself and how to cope with being George, he was assigned a support person who would sit with him all day everyday in school and help him with his work, keep him focused, it was a great help to him. By the time he left primary school and went to high school HE decided he was ready to go it alone and refused the extra help.

He finished High School went to college then on to University. He finishes his degree in Criminal Psychology this year.

By Tim on Jan 03, 2013 at 3:34am

I didn’t manage to see the actual speech at the XFF, but I did get the DVD and watch it.  Very interesting stuff, indeed.  My only real criticism is that, as far as we know, the increasing rate of ASD diagnosis isn’t necessarily the result of higher rates of ASD, but rather of our increasingly broad definitions of it.  We’re diagnosing people now that we wouldn’t have diagnosed a couple of decades ago.

Anyway, great article!

By Ian on Jan 24, 2013 at 1:14pm

I am still very concerned, given what Hillary said. The idea of humanity falling to mental disorder is monstrous.

By Lutz on Mar 10, 2013 at 6:51pm

I’d just like to say to Hillary Hocher: If scientists say that autistic people are brain damaged and mentally retarded, then I would assume you believe that social scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries claiming that African-Americans were mentally retarded and genetically inferior to Anglos and Caucasoids were correct as well, right? That seems like some pretty sound logic; a belief to which I could GENUINELY subscribe myself. Trust me, lady, we are NOT brain-damaged - we just have a different hard-wiring in our brains, something that will allow us to carry humanity to a brighter and more prosperous future (even if we can’t drive or socialize as well as you, because God forbid we should be able to derive complex mathematical systems and compose astounding and profound music, but shouldn’t be able to do simple, menial tasks). I think people should give this article a good read - but they shouldn’t stop there. They should elaborate and improve upon what Travis Leland said in his speech, and find ways of solidifying the hypotheses that are presented here. Have a nice day, everyone.
P.S. Travis,
I LOVE how you placed the cover art for Dream Theater’s “Scenes from a Memory” in this article! That…was awesome.

By D. Slaymaker on Apr 15, 2013 at 3:12pm


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