because it’s worth quoting at length

say hello to one of my favorite things written on autism research in the past 10 or more years. unsurprisingly, it was written by michelle dawson, isabelle soulieres, and laurent mottron, aka three of my research-heroes. i am straight up going to just quote from this chapter in a book (while providing the citation, of course) and make that its own damn post. it’s that good.

[Citation information: Mottron, Laurent; Dawson, Michelle; Soulieres, Isabelle. “A different memory: Are distinctions drawn from the study of nonautistic memory appropriate to describe memory in autism?” Memory in autism: Theory and evidence. Boucher, Jill (Ed); Bowler, Dermot (Ed); New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.311-329.]

Ethics: how should life forms be described?

The grasping and locomotion system of squid consists of ten tentacles and uses water for propulsion. This system is only awkwardly described by using concepts tailored for humans. A ‘humanocentric’ description of squid would be that they have 2.5 times more arms and legs than us, that these legs are boneless, and that they move by jumping horizontally under water. Apart from being distinctly unparsimonious, this description would be misleading. It leads to the inference of nails at the end of squid extremities, and to erroneous assumptions re the effect of boneless squid legs on how fast they can swim compared to humans. Fortunately, the strategy scientists use to describe squid does not take the human case as its reference point. Even when squid were first described, scientists were not baffled that cephalopod mollusc tentacles lacked nails; the difference between human and squid life forms is large enough to protect against the comic or tragic consequences of ‘humanocentrism’. 

However, in a situation where a scientist with an excellent knowledge of fish is confronted with a life form he has not seen before–a squid–he might describe this discovery in reference to fish. He might make statements like ‘Squid are disordered fish. They have superior prehensile abilities, but inferior skin resistance’, etc. But accepting the emergence of ‘tentacles’ and other squid-specific concepts, rather than persevering in using fish-oriented concepts, is closer to the idea we have of science. A scientists interested in an accurate description of squid would develop, if they did not exist already, hierarchical taxonomies which, at a general level, use concepts (e.g. limbs) that encompass phenotypic differences among life forms and, at the specific level, are tailored to the described life form. In this chapter, we consider the hypothesis that neuroscientists who describe autistic cognition often behave like fish-experts who refuse to invent a concept for tentacles, and describe squid as impaired fish.

Ethics: the presumed dangers of analogies involving different life forms

Serious concerns and objections are usually raised when an analogy involving different life forms is applied to the situation of describing autistics. The spectre of dehumanization, past and current, is invoked by an assumption that any reference, even via analogy, to a different form of life necessarily means a life that is less than or other than human.

In the case of autism, these ethical qualms can only be described as ironic. Scientists in various fields have proposed that autistics teach us about what is fundamentally and uniquely human–because it is this essence of humanity that autistics lack (Bloom, 2004; Hobson, 2003; Pinker, 2002; Tomasello et al., 2005). We therefore contend that it is the biased description of autism from a nonautistic standpoint that provides the foundation for the unethical dehumanization of autistics (Dawson, 2004a, b). The use of concepts such as ‘positive/negative symptoms’, ‘excesses/deficits’, ‘spared/impaired’, etc., to describe autistic behavior and cognition does not result in a description of intrinsic autistic features, but instead creates a concept of autism based entirely on criteria relative and relevant to the functioning of nonautistics. This knowledge in turn represents the scientific foundation for the project of ‘curing’, preventing, remediating, or otherwise eradicating autism, a project whose ethics remain unexamined and uncriticized. Autistics and allied nonautistics have responded by promoting an approach of neurodiversity, in which humankind is heterogeneous, and in which autistics should receive the assistance, accommodation and respect they need in order to succeed as autistic people. The recognition and acceptance of human difference, and therefore the humanization of populations previously set aside from humanity, is at the core of neurodiversity, while its opposite, normocentrism, is the root and rationale for dehumanization.”

“…[T]he birth, adolescence and maturity of models of cognitive functioning in autism follow a three-step course as the inadequacy of the normocentric approach slowly unravels…In all cases, as we see in step one (‘X is impaired’), the validity of cognitive concepts used to understand the autistic difference is entirely dependent on autistics being nonautistics plus or minus something–the ‘residual normality’ issue (Thomas & Karmiloff-Smith, 2002). 

Then, in step two, scientists who take a contrary view underline that each of these ‘X is impaired’ models is too powerful, and predicts impairments that appear intact under further scrutiny. It is the ‘no, X is not impaired’ stage. This second step consists mainly of repairing the ‘noise’ linked to the importing of nonautistic concepts into autism.

Lastly, in a third step, the purported defective process is reframed in a more detailed and task-oriented way. It is the ‘X works differently’ stage, where scientists reluctantly admit that autistics, although as human as nonautistic humans, are a different kind of human. Why not instead start at this point, and discard the two previous steps?”

“In the most sophisticated CC [calendar calculation] study to date, involving possibly the fastest known calendar calculator, Donny, Thioux et al. (2006) showed that Donny used a complex combination of memory for calendar templates and simple computations. However, memory and computation followed idiosyncratic restrictions. Memory and computation did not have the same role in past (no increase of reaction time according to distance) and future dates (distance effect for very distant dates). Simple computation presented unexplained asymmetry between addition and subtraction. The role of computation in retrieval was nonconventional: matching between two years in the future could be done without explicit computation. There were striking (and unexplained) differences among certain calendar templates. Even if the activation of templates was demonstrated through a priming effect of years governed by the same template, the nature of their memorization did not equate (in terms of level of consciousness or types of encoding) to a known memory system. In summary, the blend of devices used by Donny could not be reduced to the over-functioning of a sub-memory system with a corresponding equivalent in nonautistics. 

Although explanations issued from nonautistic memory seem not to work, emphasizing the role of memory in CC seems the natural consequence of discarding the role of conscious use of algorithms. However, the heterogeneity of savant strategy in this regard was a source of surprise, and of ultimate modesty…DBC was able to answer three types of ‘reversed’ questions that cannot be solved by a classical algorithm. However, a brilliant autistic adult, Emmanuel Dubruille, recently published on the web the algorithm he uses for sophisticated CC, clearly in contradiction with our study on DBC.

If there is not a clearly delimited memory subsystem that over-functions in CC, and if calculators may succeed with as well as without algorithms, how does it work? The disappointing results of attempts to understand savants to date suggest that explanations are premature, and that creation of ad-hoc concepts would be more fruitful, with the risk of having to keep to descriptions in the absence of emerging tools…To report that it exists and CC works, as behaviour and as a performance, occurring in natural situations, and without external prompts, is more informative than explanations resulting from the ‘wild’ importation of cognitive modules from the nonautistic brain. From these descriptions, laws valid for autistics will emerge (e.g. implicit learning of structured material; cf. Pring, this volume, Chapter 11) even if they contradict those valid for nonautistics.”

“[T]he low vs high (or surface/deep) distinctions may lose some validity when applied to autistics. Even if this distinctions has anatomical counterparts, it does not inherently imply a hierarchy between ‘low-level’ and ‘high-level’ tasks. If perception does problem solving, and therefore is not limited to the construction of analogical representations but encompasses manipulation of these representations (e.g. mental rotation), the concept of ‘perception’ does not carry the same assumptions any more. Accordingly, there are now indications that ‘low-level’ processes, as they are delineated in nonautistics, contribute in autistics to what nonautistics describe as high-level processes.”

The last quote is my favorite; it summarizes, in very concise but informative ways, one of my intellectual/social hobby-horses about the idea of “surface versus depth” arguments in any and all areas of cognitive science and psychology.

But really, the whole damn thing is my favorite. Everything. It’s just great.


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