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asperger's syndrome information and features

         

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Intelligence

Central Coherence

Theory of Mind

Systemising

Visual Thinking

Intelligence

Intelligence is very hard to define and is generally accepted to take many forms. I.Q. stands for intelligence quotient. It is measured using I.Q. tests, which themselves can take many forms. Most standard I.Q. tests will look at vocabulary, numeracy, logic, and the ability to solve puzzles, but there are also specialised tests that focus on just one style of question or skill. The average I.Q. test score is 100, and 75% of people score between 90 and 110.  1 in 50 people have an I.Q. in the top 2% (the top 2% varies from test to test but is around 130-140 or above), which is what you need to join MENSA. An IQ of below 70 is described as having a learning disability.

A commonly misquoted statistic is that 70% of people with autism have an IQ below 70, however, this is not referring to the autistic spectrum as a whole and does not include those diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. Despite this, I see this statistic quoted all the time when referring to the spectrum as a whole and even to Asperger Syndrome specifically.

To be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome you must be of average or above average I.Q. and in the UK people with Asperger Syndrome make up 40% of the autistic population.

Figures provided on the National Autistic Society website in the UK suggest that in fact 80% of individuals on the autistic spectrum as a whole have an IQ greater than 70. I hate to be a cynic, but I suspect the reason that more positive and representative statistics like this are hardly ever quoted is because they do not further the political agenda of many powerful anti-autistic organisations, (paranoid as that sounds).

For people with some autistic spectrum disorders low I.Q. test scores may be because of lack of cooperation rather than lack of intelligence, but I.Q. tests do not seem to work on people with Asperger syndrome very well either, even though we can usually sit down and do them easily enough, but I suppose that is not at all surprising... Why should a test designed for people of one particular style of thinking and brain functioning tell you anything at all about people whose brains and thinking style are totally different! I'm not even sure I.Q. tests tell us much about the potential of neurotypical people let alone autistic people. I don't know about anyone else, but that seems quite obvious to me. It is like measuring the physical fitness of a fish by seeing how fast it can run.

No wonder then, our scores can be very uneven. I have done many I.Q. tests throughout my life and scored everything from 116 to 170 (155 in the MENSA test). I don't feel any of these scores reflect anything other than my ability to successfully complete the various tests that yielded them.

I personally do not believe that intelligence is measurable. It is demonstratable... but lack of demonstration does not mean it is not there.

Central Coherence

Some researchers believe that brains of people on the autistic spectrum may actually process information in a different way to the neurotypical. Central coherence means bringing bits of information together to interpret them as a whole. It is suggested that this is how neurotypical brains handle information. The autistic style of information processing in contrast would be focused on the details and lacking an inability to see the 'bigger picture'. Both styles of thinking would have their strengths and weaknesses.

It is certainly true that a lot of autistic people have a remarkable eye for detail, and do occasionally fail to see the bigger picture, but the problem with this idea is that Autistic people can see the whole and not just the detail when they need to, or how else would we able to understand things like the workings of engines or computer programs. All systems are more than the sum of their component parts, and without an inability to see how it all fits together you cannot understand the system. To be the excellent systemisers that so many of us are our central coherence cannot possibly be as weak as it is suggested.

Then I have to ask the question, why does it have to be weak at all? Can't we just say that we have such a strong eye for detail that sometimes it take priority over a normal level of central coherence. It strikes me as arrogant and prejudiced to assume that all theories of autism must be about some deficiency on our part rather than just a neutral difference.

My own experience has led me to believe that for most people thinking about stuff is like walking into a room and turning on the light. They can just get a general impression of it all or they can direct their attention to particular areas that jump out at them from the mix. This has obvious advantages but two major weaknesses. Firstly it is a very passive way of thinking about stuff. Secondly, the prejudices and preferences of the individual at any given moment of time will dictate what jumps out at them, which could result in them missing important stuff because due to the first major weakness they don't need to go looking for it.

For me however thinking about stuff is like walking into a room that has no lights carrying a torch. The first time I think about a subject is like the first time I go into a room... at first what I see is random as I flash my torch around trying to get my bearings but very quickly I begin to build up a picture of the room in my head. It is an active rather than a passive experience because I need to not just remember where everything is, I need to understand everything's relative position and it's relationship to everything else. When I shine my torch on something I see only it in great detail and nothing else, no distractions... tunnel vision... and yet I am still aware of it's place in the room and how it fits into the whole, though my mental picture is no doubt very different to that of people who see it all together. A disadvantage is that I learn slow, but once I catch up I often exceed others in my memory and understanding of a subject. Also, understanding something's relationship to the whole and seeing the whole are two very different things, and I often don't see the 'bigger picture'. I can brainstorm ideas and spot details that others can't, but I am not always practical or wise when it comes to evaluating ideas and judging which details are important and which are not.

I am aware of my limitations in this regard and instead I focus on my strengths. In any workplace, family, team of people, or society, there is a place and a need and a purpose for people like me, just as there is for other people. I think too many people don't know their limitations and think that the way they think is perfect and flawless... they need never doubt their conclusions or interpretations. They do say ignorance is bliss...

Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind, also described as empathising or (the lack of it) as mind blindness is an often misunderstood speculation about autistic behaviour.

Essentially it describes two key skills that work together. The first is the knowledge or awareness that other people have mental states, that is,  thoughts and feelings. The second is to experience an appropriate emotional reaction inside yourself in response to that. So far example, if you know that someone is sad and knowing that makes you feel sad then you have theory of mind.

There is some experimental evidence that autistic people have difficulty with theory of mind. For example, in the Sally-Ann test a scenario is enacted with two dolls, Sally and Ann. Sally has a box and Ann has a basket. Sally puts a marble in her box and then goes away. While she is away Ann takes the marble from the box and puts it in her basket. Then Sally comes back to play with her marble. The subject is then asked where will she look for the marble first? If the subject says she will look in the basket then it is suggested they do not understand that Sally doesn't know everything they know.

Now, no child is born with theory of mind. It is something that develops during early childhood. In the Sally-Ann test children with Asperger syndrome have difficulty until a later age than most children, so it would at least suggest that children with Asperger syndrome develop theory of mind later than most. This would fit with my own experience because I don't recall feeling empathy for others until I was around 7 to 9 years old. However, I did have a very strong sense of right and wrong, so even without empathy I wasn't cruel to others. My main deficiency was that I didn't take much interest in other people and didn't go through any of the social rituals related to empathy such as sympathising.

Some people with Asperger syndrome may have difficulty with theory of mind well into adulthood, but some don't. I believe that I understand now as well as anybody that others have thoughts and feelings, and I think I care more than most if I find out I have hurt or upset them, and I say 'if' because one of my problems still is that I more often than not cannot guess what other people are thinking and feeling. I think I know, but it usually turns out I don't. Most other people do not think and feel in the same way I do.

While an autistic person may lack of a theory of neurotypical mind, do they lack a theory of autistic mind? Could it be not that people lack empathy and awareness, but that the basis of everybody's theory of mind is what their own mind is like. Neurotypical people are not psychic. Theory of mind is the result of being able to read non-verbal cues and guessing what people must be feeling based on your own experiences. If you can't read those cues and your experiences are even slightly different, then a much bigger mental leap is involved.

I suppose I can't always tell when people are teasing or bored, but I attribute that more to my difficulties with recognising body language and facial expressions... it's nothing to do with theory of mind.

Anyway, what is very clear is that you cannot say that all autistic people lack empathy, and it would be the height of ignorance to do so. It is a misinterpretation of what difficulty with theory of mind means. It is a statement that just doesn't reflect reality at all.

Systemising

Another interesting finding from the Sally-Ann test is apparently that children with Asperger syndrome are more likely to reason through it like a puzzle, where as 'normal' children have more of a spontaneous insight. The science seems to back up this observation. fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) done by the Institute of Psychiatry in London and the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge show that when people with Asperger syndrome are working out what someone is thinking or feeling they have increased blood flow to different areas of the brain than most people. It appears as if people with Asperger syndrome use their general intelligence to solve social problems whereas most people have an innate social intelligence.

This is in line with the empathising-systemising theory of autism, which is that autistic people may be weak empathisers but are very strong systemisers, and have a superior ability to understand systems of all sorts. Different types of systems are all around us. The following List is taken from 'An Exact Mind' by Myers, Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright:

  • Mechanical Systems (such as machines and tools)

  • Natural Systems (such as biological and geographical phenomena)

  • Abstract Systems (such as mathematics or computer programs)

  • Motoric Systems (such as piano finger technique, or a tennis shot)

  • Organizable Systems (such as a library catalogue or a stamp collection) and

  • Social Systems (such as a business, or a football team).

It may be that that autistic people all apply their systemising intelligence in a variety of ways in their jobs, in their hobbies and interests, and in their daily routines, but those that apply it to understanding other people and social behaviour may have a unique insight into other people that even most neurotypical people fail to have, which may or may not be of much practical advantage when it comes to actually relating to people in a social sense.

Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the autism research centre at the University of Cambridge, has developed the following tests to identify peoples empathising and systemizing ability. I scored 51 for systemising (the average for a women is 24) and 12 for empathising (the average for a woman is 47). I don't think that these tests say as much as they seem to claim about people's ability to systemise and empathise because they focus on behaviours and how people are traditionally understood to express these abilities.

For example, if I am questioned about how honest I would be to someone about a bad haircut, I would seem to lack empathy for telling the truth, but my reasoning would be that if they know the truth they can do something about it rather than walking around oblivious looking like a fool, so I clearly care about them and their feelings even if I am maybe guessing wrong about them wanting to know the truth. Tragic news stories and sad films and books move me to tears all the time, to a far greater degree than I see in other people. I am also aware that some people feel certain emotions more strongly than I do, for example, I have many times chosen to make myself look foolish to spare another person embarrassment because I know they will feel more upset than I would by it, yet why would I even choose to do that if I really had so little empathy?

It is my way  I think to express empathy through my actions rather than my reactions... I may not always feel an emotional response to how another person is feeling (though I sometimes do) but I am still aware of how they might be feeling and act accordingly with compassion and as much sensitivity as I am capable of. If someone is crying and in distress I may not be very good at consoling them but I can be strong and calm for them, and isn't that just as valuable?

I would agree that it is very likely I lack an innate social intelligence and rely largely on logic and analysis to cope with social situations and problems, however, I still maintain that I have empathy. I may have developed it later than most, and it may be the result of reasoning rather than innate, but I have it all the same.

I certainly don't lament lacking an innate social intelligence... It might have some rather primitive benefits I suppose, but where is the value in knowledge or moral conduct that comes without reasoning or logic? I would hate to be unable to think outside the limitations of some crude social programming. If that is really what it is like to be neurotypical I for one am glad I am not.

Visual Thinking

Many autistic people relate to descriptions of a visual form of cognition (referred to as "Thinking in Pictures" by Temple Grandin). The description on which the idea is based is that given in the following article by Temple Grandin 'My Experiences with Visual Thinking, Sensory Problems, and Communication Difficulties' and is quoted below.

"Thinking in language and words is alien to me. I think totally in pictures. It is like playing different tapes in a video cassette recorder in my imagination. I used to think that everybody thought in pictures until I questioned many different people about their thinking processes. I have conducted an informal little cognitive test on many people. They are asked to access their memory of church steeples or cats. An object that is not in the person's immediate surroundings should be used for this visualization procedure. When I do this, I see in my imagination a series of "videos" of different churches or cats I have seen or known. Many "normal" people will see a visual image of a cat, but it is a sort of generalized generic cat image. They usually don't see a series of vivid cat or church "videos" unless they are an artist, parent of an autistic child, or an engineer. My "cat" concept consists of a series of "videos" of cats I have known. There is no generalized cat. If I keep thinking about cats or churches I can manipulate the "video" images. I can put snow on the church roof and imagine what the church grounds look like during the different seasons. Some people access their "cat" knowledge as auditory or written language. For me, there is no language based information in my memory. To access spoken information, I replay a "video" of the person talking. There are some brilliant people who have little visual thought. One totally verbal professor told me that facts just come to his mind instantly with no visual image. To retrieve facts, I have to read them off a visualized page of a book or "replay the video" of some previous event. This method of thinking is slower. It takes time to "play" the videotape in my imagination. Research findings indicate that verbal thought and visual thinking work via different brain systems (Farah 1989; Zeki 1992). Studies of patients with brain damage indicate that one system can be damaged, while another system may be normal. The brain is designed with modular systems. These systems may work either together or separately to perform different tasks. For example, people with certain types of brain damage can recognize objects with straight edges, but they cannot recognize objects with irregular edges. The brain module that recognizes irregular shapes has been damaged (Weiss 1989). In autism, the systems that process visual-spatial problems are intact. There is a possibility that these systems may be expanded to compensate for deficits in language. The nervous system has remarkable plasticity; one part can take over and compensate for deficits in language. The nervous system has remarkable plasticity; one part can take over and compensate for a damaged part (Huttenlocher 1984). A functional MRI study by Ring et al. (1999) indicates that people with autism depend more on the visual parts of the brain on an embedded figures test."

I ran a survey on this site asking the question  'Are you a visual thinker?'  and I had 160 responses. About 50% of neurotypical and 60% of autistic people identified with the description of visual thinking given above.

Humans rely heavily on the sense of sight. I would think it was very unusual if we did not visualise a great many of our thoughts, or at least have the ability to do so if we chose. I think there are lots of different ways to think and I think most people employ all or a combination of some of them. Some people will be weaker in some areas and stronger in others. People on the autistic spectrum may more commonly be stronger visual thinkers and weaker verbal thinkers.

I personally find the term visual thinking inadequate to describe what thought is really like in my head, but what I can say is that based on what other people describe to me, my use of verbal thought is far less than most. In particular when I need to speak there are no words in my head, just thoughts. The only words in my head are memories of words... mental video tapes of past conversations, of television shows, of me reading the pages of books. I must either draw on these memories for source material or try and speak it as I think it, resulting in me using a lot of metaphors. Anyway, amidst all this rambling the point I am trying to make is that I don't know what thinking is like for other people, but for me it is largely neither verbal or visual, it is more like manipulating patterns or structures. I don't need to be 'seeing' or 'hearing' anything in my mind... I just feel my way.

Just for fun, here is a quiz that attempts to find out what type of 'thinker' you are... BBCi - Leonardo - Thinker quiz

Further reading available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

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