Sunday, December 24, 2006

Verbatim: Peter Szatmari's amazement

Peter Szatmari is the best known and most influential of Canada's autism researchers. His published papers are always worth reading, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his general direction. I'm bending the rules of Verbatim slightly and quoting from Dr Szatmari's 2004 book, which is a popular rather than scholarly book. It is, however, his only published book to date, and while Dr Szatmari is not a cognitive scientist, here he is musing about autistic cognitive processes. These are two excerpts from the same chapter. They are deliberately chosen to circumvent, as much as is possible in this book, Dr Szatmari's preponderant and constant reminders that, in his view, the autistic abilities he exclaims about are only the pathological side-effects of our overwhelming and devastating impairments. Justin is a 30 year old autistic adult, one of the first autistics Dr Szatmari ever met.

Justin is especially fascinated with thunderstorms. Every time there is a thunderstorm he takes his tape machine outside and records the sounds. Afterward he plays the tapes to amuse himself and to help him fall asleep. He also likes to buy commercially produced weather tapes and will add them to his collection of homemade tapes. Once, after he bought a couple of tapes, he quickly noticed the same thunderstorm was on both of them. He was not a little put out at the discovery. "How dare they try to pull a fast one on me?" he said indignantly.

I once asked him why he recorded thunderstorms. "They all sound the same, don't they?"

Justin looked at me as if I were the stupidest person on earth. "No," he said. "They all sound quite different." But he did not elaborate.

I asked him to bring some tapes to our next appointment, and we spent the hour listening to them. He was right; all storms do sound different. He pointed out the variation in the peals of thunder. There were differences in volume, of course, but I had never heard the wide range of pitch and rhythm. How amazing!


It is the ability to see, hear, and play with the intimate architecture of the world that is truly amazing. The rest of us can see this architecture too if we make a conscious decision to look. But we are rarely drawn to it as a natural affinity. We have to work at it. We have to turn away from language and from social relationships to see it. People with autism gravitate to it effortlessly.


Szatmari, P. (2004). A mind apart: Understanding children with autism and Asperger syndrome. New York: Guilford.


Anonymous said...

Sounds spot on to me! Seasonal greetings.

Anonymous said...

I feel the same way about the rain - there is actually something very individual about each rain and type of rain. There is such a wide diversity among the different types of rain - almost like each one is an improvizational musical performance. I can't actually think that anyone could say all storms sound alike. That sounds so "unobservant" - lol.


Anonymous said...

It seems Dr. Szatmari is often surprised by autistics, including when he found, to his surprise, that a good proportion have "very good outcomes". But didn't he say in the senate hearing something to the effect that autism has the worst outcome of all neurological disorders? That makes no sense, surely. It's like his brain is in a knot over autism.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Dr. Szatmari would admit that Justin was actually hearing more than he, Dr. Szatmari could hear. It's like Szatmari was saying that non-autistics could think like autistics if they felt like it.

I think not.

Michelle Dawson said...

Ms Clark wrote, "It's like Szatmari was saying that non-autistics could think like autistics if they felt like it."

That's something Dr Szatmari states or implies more than once in his book, and it's one of the reasons why I pointed out that Dr Szatmari isn't a cognitive scientist.

Ms Clark also wrote: "I think not."

Well, there's science that says you're right. There's at least some evidence that autistics are more cognitively versatile than non-autistics, rather than vice versa (e.g., Caron et al., 2006; Sheppard et al., in press).

For Joseph, there is a lot of inconsistency in Dr Szatmari's informal statements about autism, as in his book and his Senate brief. So it's better to read his published, peer-reviewed papers. But his informal work is also very influential.

When I read Dr Szatmari's book (I didn't know what kind of book it was when I ordered it, and was surprised that it was a popular-level book), what stood out for me was not any factual description of autism, but his amazement. This is keeping in mind that he is a very important scientist in the field of autism, and not just in Canada.

For Anonymous, Dr Szatmari also mentions (page 29) " little boy with AS who enjoyed drumming so much that he spent hours in the garage imitating the sound of he rain falling on the roof by banging on a set of boxes of different sizes."

notmercury said...

"We have to turn away from language and from social relationships to see it. People with autism gravitate to it effortlessly."

In other words: social interactions are a barrier to seeing and hearing subtleties and details that autistics are innately attuned to, free from the burden of maintaining relationships? Anyone can make a conscious effort to notice these things at the sacrifice of social reciprocity.

I don't agree with this at all. It's as if he is thinking of social skills like one of the senses which, when lost, will evoke a compensatory gain of function in the other senses. Like a blind person with a heightened sense of smell, that sort of thing.

Is there an inverse correlation between the ability to recognize subtle patterns and development of social skills?

Anonymous said...

Not Mercury, I'm not going to speak for Michelle (I wouldn't dare!) but speaking for myself I happen to think that the statement that there is a sensory compensation for the lack of social skills is spot on. AS I recall, Tony Attwood (expert on Aspergers Syndrome) refers to sensory sensitivity. Dr.Szatmari has picked this up - the sensitivity is a compensatory flow on. I see that in myself with the increase in touch, taste and smell. There's a good case for hearing as well (when I'm paying attention!)

There is another factor there as well - as that's the tendency for ASD people (I'm trying to make a habit of that over "sufferer" for Michelle's benefit) to have a "peculiar gaze". That is, the eye contact issue. It's not a sight issue in the basic sense, but it could contribute to the compensatory factor. Hope you're following this as I'm typing on the fly here!

Bottom line though, and this is what attracted me to this posting to begin with. This is a classic example of the positives of ASD's. It's with interest like this that leads to more scientific discoveries of storms in general. We should be harnessing this knowledge and using it. Justin will probably end up unemployed and miserable unless things change in Canada. And his story should also be a message to those who refer to neuro diversity as a bad thing. I've always said that we wouldn't have had the scientific advances that we have had if it's hadn't been for our HFA/ASD ancestors (the genuises of the 19th century, as well as Einstein and more recently Bill Gates).

Just on Dr.Szatmari's somewhat hypocritical contribution to the Canadian senate, he may well have been playing kiss arse with the advocates. But I'm guessing.

Anonymous said...

According to Dr. Szatmari's interpretation, block design ability, for example, would be the result of lack of social interaction. That seems far fetched. Additionally, non-autistics would be good at block design if they just wanted to. Same thing with hyperlexia, RPM IQ tests and so forth.

BTW, I thought it was strange that Dr. Szatmari thought all thunderstorms sound alike. That was interesting insight about the NT brain to me.

Michelle Dawson said...

(I wanted to revise this comment, so I deleted it and reposted it--apologies).

NM wrote, "Is there an inverse correlation between the ability to recognize subtle patterns and development of social skills?"

I disagree with Dr Szatmari that in autism, there is existing evidence that superior processing some kinds of information is the pathological result of impairments in processing other specified kinds. Dividing the kinds of information into "social" and "non-social" has also been remarkably unproductive.

On the other hand, Dr Szatmari's interpretation of autistics' abilities is common (if not ubiquitous) in the science, including among cognitive scientists. It is routinely assumed, in the absence of any evidence, that autistic abilities are pathological side-effects of autistic deficits.

The classic instance of this is the WCC (weak central coherence) explanation for why autistics perform well on Block Design tasks (as in Wechsler scales). There was never any evidence that this superiority resulted from a deficit in "central coherence".

We recently showed that not only was the assumed deficit non-existent, but that autistics who would be presumed to have the "weakest" central coherence (because they had the best performance on Block Design) in fact also had superior performance in constructing global representations (Caron et al., 2006).

Autistics (of all ages and presumed levels of functioning) have also inconveniently shown superior performance in tasks involving social information (e.g., Langdell, 1978; Aldridge et al., 2000; Chawarska et al., 2003; Lahaie et al., 2006). Social deficit theories of autism have produced remarkably poor predictions.

Regardless, Dr Szatmari has a lot of impressive company in assuming that a presumed failure to attend to social information is explanatory of autistics' abilities. The Yale group (Volkmar et al., 2003) has suggested that autistics' presumed WCC results from autistics' presumed poor social abilities which result from autistics' presumed innate lack of social motivation.

Anonymous said...

I also read Dr Szatmari's book and was disappointed by his negative attitude. At one point he expresses surprise and seems to think it is some sort of aberration that an autistic person had a career that involved their special interst. (I mean surprise surprise someone chooses and area they are intereted in for their work). A whole chapter is devoted to a woman who he refuses to diagnose as Aspergers because her accomplishments were too great and her impairment was insufficent (I am paraphrasing from memory here). He says that he learnt a lot from this woman about what it is like to grow up with Aspergers. I think if he able to say that about her, he has a moral obligation to give her an offical diagnosis if that is what she has come for, rather than saying in effect that because she has to a large extent managed to mask and/or overcome the difficulties associated with a condition she does not have that condition.

Anonymous said...

Szatmari speaks to families and he speaks to funding sorces. If I was in his shoes I would see the glass as half full when speaking to families and half empty when speaking to sorces of funding. Families need encouragement and funders need prodding.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this book is unbelievably negative, and also highly redundant. I wish I never would have read it b/c it has made me feel more pessimistic about my son's future. I agree that this was NOT written for families at all. I wish B&N would take it off the shelves..