Thursday, February 01, 2007

Not even human

Autism again figures prominently in this month's APS Presidential Column by Morton Ann Gernsbacher, "On Not Being Human" (which I strongly recommend be read in its entirety). She asks,

Do we all agree that all humans are indeed, human?

And points out historical examples where the humanity of humans has been denied, including:

The anonymous tract, Disputatio Nova Contra Mulieres, Qua Probatur Eas Homines Non Esse (A New Argument Against Women, in Which it Is Demonstrated That They Are not Human Beings), first published in 1595, was reprinted prolifically during the 17th and 18th centuries.


In the 1860s, British anthropologists espoused that Blacks were an inferior species, more comparable to apes than to Caucasians, and therefore well suited for slavery.


At the Nuremberg Trial, one SS general explained his allegiance to genocide by the simple contention that “Jews are not even human.”

Dr Gernsbacher then shows that assertions that some humans aren't human are not confined to the past. She supplies an example of a statement made by a language researcher at a conference not so many years ago:

“Oh, I’ve seen children with Williams syndrome. They don’t count. They’re not even human. They must belong to some other species entirely.”

As Dr Gernsbacher points out, these spoken words did not make it into print. This contrasts with the situation in autism. Autistics have been prominently denied human status in accolade-laden books and in prominent peer-reviewed papers:

For example, in a recent New York Times “notable book of the year,” an internationally acclaimed psychological scientist segregated autistic people from other humans and placed them “together with robots and chimpanzees.”

Dr Gernsbacher has not named this acclaimed cognitive scientist, but he is instantly recognizable as Steven Pinker. She also provides this quote:

“it’s as if they [autistic people] do not understand or are missing a core aspect of what it is to be human”

Without peeking at the references, I have no trouble instantly attributing this one to Bryna Siegel, who has been an expert witness for the government side in more than one Canadian ABA legal battle (e.g., Wynberg and Hewko).

Dr Gernsbacher goes on to explore of the work of Micheal Tomasello (again, not named, but unmistakable), who published two major target articles in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, in 1993 then in 2005. Dr Tomasello has authored many other articles as well as a highly praised and influential book, which have in common his contention that autistics, like apes, lack the essential features defining humans as human. Here is how Dr Gernsbacher describes the 2005 BBS article:

In a more recent scholarly article, also written with the aim of delineating “the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other species,” autistic people were again segregated from other humans and placed with great apes. After acknowledging that the empirical literature demonstrates that “great apes and children with autism are clearly not blind to all aspects of intentional action,” the authors raised the bar (“understanding the intentional actions and perceptions of others is not by itself sufficient to produce humanlike social and cultural activities”), and continued to pound home their belief that autistic children do not “engage socially and culturally with others in the ways that human children do”; they do not “interact with other persons in the species-typical manner.” Their social behavior is just not human.

What Dr Gernsbacher does not point out is that the examples she provides are not exceptional. There is a list of famous scientists, currently prominent in various disciplines, who have in various ways denied that autistics are human (or even alive). In addition to Steven Pinker, Michael Tomasello, and Bryna Siegel, this list would include Peter Hobson, Fred Volkmar, Thomas Insel, V.S. Ramachandran, Ivar Lovaas, and Paul Bloom.

Dr Gernsbacher concludes:

Why are humans dehumanized? According to Morton Deutsch, this year’s APS James McKeen Cattell award recipient, humans are dehumanized when they are perceived as a threat. What threat do humans with Williams syndrome and autistic humans pose to psychological scientists? A threat to the universality of the scientists’ theories, a threat to the scientists’ ability to accept human diversity?

Last fall, a Duquesne University sophomore violated his Catholic university’s code of conduct by posting on Facebook his opinion that homosexual behavior was “subhuman.” Shouldn’t psychological scientists be held to an equally high code of conduct? In addition to being required to remove his offensive comment from the Web, the Duquesne sophomore had to write a 10-page essay on respect for human dignity. I wish some psychological scientists would at least read, if not write, a similar essay.


David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. said...

"What threat do humans with Williams syndrome and autistic humans pose to psychological scientists?"

Many threats.

"A threat to the universality of the scientists’ theories, a threat to the scientists’ ability to accept human diversity?"

That would be just one of them.

"Shouldn’t psychological scientists be held to an equally high code of conduct?"

In fact, we are (the BPS has one, and so do the PSI, the APA and the Canadian Psychological Association).

Problem is... most of the respect in it is aimed at psychologists ourselves rather than other people (expect in terms of research 'subjects'). There is no mention of, for example, a duty on applied psychologists to refer to certain demographic groups (autistics, homosexuals, offenders/ex-offenders, etc.) as having retained any humanity or even as having any human qualities when describing them in contexts outside of research.

Certainly time for change to occur in that department.

Larry Arnold PhD FRSA said...

Unfortunatley the BPS does not always live up to its code of ethics.

I complained to them regarding Professor David Canters remarks about Asperger's syndrome over the Barry George case.

I also complained to his University.

He was not even reprimanded, such is the "old boys club" of the BPS that the likelihood of them adjudging one of there own in default of the code is in itself psychologicaly defined as an event not likely to happen

David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. said...

I remember that situation. I also complained to Cantor. I respect him as a very good applied psychologist (really... he has done a lot to advance the science)... but as someone to think of in terms of thinking about the consequences of his verbalisations... forget it.

I didn't get a reply from him.

Doubt that I ever will.

I have to say that I agree with the BPS on a fair few things... a minimum standard of academic achievement is a good thing for allowing people to be called a psychologist; but these days... everything going to Doctorates... stuff that! I draw the line at the BPS trying to be the APA.

Maddy said...

I believe that professional persons are supposed to try and be objective about their 'patients.'
If you are 'objective' about something then there is no relationship between the expert and the patient.
Maybe if each expert had one relationship that was subjective, with a non patient, who happened to be autistic, then perhaps they'd discover humanity.
Best wishes

David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. said...

Physicists gave up on 'objectivity' decades ago.... it's about time that psychologists did the same.

Nancy said...

Good God. I think individuals who show no compassion are not human.

Sadly, I'm not surprised by comments like these anymore.

daedalus2u said...

I have been thinking a lot about this, and have a hypothesis I am starting to work on, that ASD individuals don't have the "proper" mirror neuron structures ("mirror neuron stuff"), which NTs use in non-verbal communication, a lot more than NTs realize.

When NTs meet, they communicate via their "mirror neuron stuff", and that if the "mirror neuron stuff", between the two individuals is enough "in sync", then the "xenophobia" module doesn't get activated.

In effect, NTs are doing a "Turing test", via their "mirror neuron stuff", and if the person "passes" it, they are "human", or at least not sufficiently different for xenophobia to be the instinctive response. If they don't "pass" it, then instinctively they are treated as non-human (more or less).

I think this "explains" a lot of discrimination. If someone is enough "different" (culturally, in appearance, or affect, gender, etc), then the non-verbal communication won't be "in sync".

I think the absolute horror that some parents have, is because they feel xenophobia toward their child. That is quite disturbing, so they displace it onto what ever it is they perceive to be the "cause", mercury, evil pharmaceutical execs, NDs, or in times gone by (?) witches.

I think it is quite non-cognitive, and so can't really be analyzed as such by NTs. Along the lines of Louis Armstrong's statement about Jazz, "Man, if you have to ask what it (jazz) is, you'll never know."

I know it is a lot more complicated than this. Thinking about how to test this, is there an inverse correlation between anthropomorphic projection and ASDs?

Michelle Dawson said...

Re mirror neurons and autism, see
Hamilton et al. (in press, at Neuropsychologia). I'm not agreeing with this paper (which has Frith-like areas) as a whole, but the data are worth taking in.

These data were earlier presented at IMFAR 2006. That was one of my favourite presentations at that conference. You can read my account of it here, though here it is again:

"One, Antonia Hamilton's presentation about imitation in autism. She started with the standard issue explanation of mirror neurons, complete with cute cartoons. Then she extrapolated this to autism. Oh no, I thought, I'm going to have to leave the room. Then she put big black X's through the whole thing, to show that there is no, or markedly insufficient, evidence to support any of this rampant speculation. I sat on my hands so I didn't leap to my feet and burst wildly into applause. The rest of her presentation was superb (and very un-Frith-like; she works in Uta Frith's group). Autistics were remarkably good at imitation in her series of rigorous, very well thought-out paradigms. The one exception? Imitating arbitrary, meaningless gestures performed by humans.

"This presentation was a light year (or two) ahead, in quality and importance, of Sally Rogers' huge plenary session keynote "Presidential Address" re imitation in autism (which tediously imitated a great deal of what she had presented at McGill back in 2003)."

daedalus2u said...

I only saw the abstract, but it fits my hypothesis exactly and precisely. It is precisely the arbitrary meaningless gestures (and meaningless cultural practices) that are so difficult to imitate.

If the standard cultural practices and the "normal" NT mind produced by doing NT type things isn't "working", and so results in maternal "stress", time to try something else. The "theory of mind", is the emulation of an NT-type mind. NTs can't conceive of anything else, everything else is (to use a term I abhor) "counterintuitive", as if the "problem" in not understanding can be externalized.

Anonymous said...

Like those suffering from genetic, or acquired paralysis, missing body features, blindness, etc, so is autism with regard to basic intra-personal, inter-personal, sensory, communicative, and behavioral abilities. It can be conceived of as a grave paralysis of the brain.
I am someone with Aspergers.

Michelle most of your arguments are psychologically motivated.

I do not agree with the conception of autism as a disability etc. And I believe this is the case for any so called disability...cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Down Syndrome etc. But they, still, are more than mere "differences" as you say. These are general states/conditions/etc that are highly adverse compared to other general states, namely, a person who generally doesn't have these states/conditions. (I use the term 'condition' neutrally).

You and I are impoverished human beings COMPARED to others who, generally, don't have what we do. Yes we have certain abilities, but what we lack is a horrific tragedy, subjecting us to torturous, devastatingly limited lives COMPARED to the lives others, generally, have.

You and others can pick at the rare exceptions among autistic people and then try to generalize from these exceptions. But you miss the reality, that most suffer, and suffer greatly.

I'm amazed at the incredible personalities you and others like you have, the immense pretentiousness, immense self-centeredness, pompousness, elitism. This, also, is autism, and very unfortunate. You live in your own self-aggrandizing world, led by your delusions about what you are, what others are, etc.

Michelle Dawson said...

Hi pts,

My position, the one you are opposing, is that autistics are fully human, have human rights, and deserve recognized standards of science and ethics.

When groups of people are regarded and treated as less than human (see the subject of the post you are commenting on), they become very likely to be harmed, to suffer and have poor outcomes.

Also, recognized standards of science and ethics exist because without them, people were likely to be harmed. They were likely to suffer and have poor outcomes.

So your position, in complete opposition to mine (which, again, is that autistics are fully human, have human rights, and deserve recognized standards of science and ethics), is likely to result in autistics being harmed, suffering, and having poor outcomes.

Anonymous said...

It would be easier to be a progressive liberal in order to comfortably utilize The Lovaas Center. So much of their input is focused on politics and so little is about how to utilize the ABA system to treat autism. Seems that their priority is clear. Elect any socialist progressive democrat, regardless of their integrity as long as they allow access to more money.
From what I have viewed it does not matter that Hillary Clinton is a lying cheating corrupt politician or Bernie is a full blown communist. Apparently truth does not matter either because; the clock boy was not just an innocent muslim genius that had no ulterior motives. The woman removed from Trumps speech is not Gandhi personified, while Trump is not the devil himself. Furthermore, the Lovaas Center should know that white terrorists are definitely not a bigger threat than Muslim extremists. The Lovaas Center must be so far to the left that even if Putin or any old jihadist were to run under the Democrat ticket he would get the Lovaas centers undivided support as long as they received more funding. I believe that people should find alternatives to the Lovaas Center to assist their children, perhaps Caesar the Dog Whisperer could teach the whole system by exchanging canine treats with M&M's and Oreo cookies. No wonder the LC works harder with politics, because ABA' "Science" is simply positive/negative reinforcement consistently applied. (Dog training) Minimally applied 40 hours per week to reach maximum profit. 2080 hours per year spent with your child by a very patient ABA specialist vigorously trained to make what they do seem far more sophisticated than it really is. Very good, have an M&M or No Do Same, so that you may be trained. The end result remains the same, 30% of children naturally bounce out, or were simply introverts to begin with. Now added to the 30% percent that were incorrectly diagnosed, combined with children that are known to be low on the spectrum (if at all) who marginally benefited from the training. Well, these children are perfect for being paraded around to be shown as promotional success stories. As for the children that actually might have what is called high on the spectrum autism? Well it could have been mental retardation to start with, not Autism. Either way, Retardation or High Spectrum Autism, unfortunately results are minimal, possibly counter productive and definitely there will be no parading around for them. 
ABA the "Gold Seal" technique for making money off autism. Socialist supporters utilizing capitalism to gain wealth, that is the true ABA way.

Anonymous said...

Your problem is that you don't understand that these "meaningless behaviors" have full meaning to NTs and give a sense of group unity and comracamaraderie. Sorry, but you're not human but I bet you're smart and you can figure out a way to still be useful in society.

Anonymous said...

But they're not human because they are missing fundamental human aspects. You can come to terms with it and still be productive or deny it and just torture yourselves.

David Charles Huckel said...

I pose an existential threat to autism itself, myself. What started out as my mother inflicting all manner of violence, malice, and abuse upon me, and allowing my two younger siblings to treat me as a sociopath would treat anybody else, soon escalated to threats from mum of violent arrest for emulating my sibs' or her behaviour.

I now work towards autism's ultimate demise by my activity in the workforce. I run three businesses unassisted, and plan to start up more.

Nobody said...

Anonymous who posted at 6...really? You mean it has nothing to do with DNA and the fact that if mine were tested, surprise, it would turn up human? Which it has, by the way. If "being human" in your sense means to ostracize others based on ridiculous criteria such as avoiding small talk and missing cues, you have bigger issues than me. Holy cow. You choose to forgo altruism, which OUR species is adept at among others. It's a myth that those with ASD don't have empathy. They do, in fact recent studies show we have too damn much of it. Anon, your posts reek of envy. I know, not understanding the the unknown is a scary thing. I'll have some compassion on you and hope that you grow out of this. I hear NTs are super good with empathy, maybe you'll develop some :/

Also, I hear many NTs despise a coward, so why are you hiding?

Gerard Boyd said...

I’m not replying to anyone specifically, but I just want to say a few things.
I am human, if you took a dna test, it would come up as Homosapien, this idea of “personhood” doesn’t make sense, it is nothing but subjective and meaningless. No one has a right to dehumanise anyone.
So no matter how many times you try to justify your xenophobic beliefs with pseudoscience, you will lose the argument, so please just quit, you’re not benefiting society or making the world a better place, you’re in fact doing the opposite: you are making people who have done nothing wrong feel miserable, stop it.