Autism continues to puzzle the brain

Cross-posted from:

Recent phenomenological research (Hens & Langenberg, forthcoming) has found that receiving a diagnosis can be very helpful for autistic individuals. One of the significant elements is a coming to terms with the nature of autism as, at least in part, neurological diversity. As discussed in an Autism Ethics Network event in Utrecht, it makes a difference what type of neurological explanation is taken; as the explanation not only impacts the self-perception of autistic individuals but also the way in which autistic people are seen by society.

Sometimes it seems like there is a definitive consensus in cognitive science about autism. This is most definitely not the case. In a recent cognitive science paper (1) autism theories have been grouped as “social first and nonsocial” based on which facts are considered to be the primary cause of the behavior giving rise to an autism diagnosis. Recent cognitive research is taking the heterogeneity of symptoms and co-morbidities associated to autism as an occasion for developing novel theories. Below, that research is systemized somewhat inviting the reader to keep an open mind on autism research as well as on the very real ethical implications of going for one or another type of theory.

Our classification groups theories in the categories ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’. This can be taken literally: some theories start from facts at a higher social or cognitive level where others start from facts at a lower sensory, perception, motor or predictive coding level.

The still dominant scientific theory of autism – Theory of Mind – is, per this division, a top-down theory. On this account the brain is modular and autism affects the social modules. Assuming a one-to-one correspondence between social behavior (or a lack thereof) and a particular piece of machinery in the brain provides an immediate fit to the social facts. New theories that wear their top-down nature on their sleeves emerged (such as Weak Central Coherence and Executive Functioning Deficit). They are still broadly committed to a modular view of the brain where, in autism, the higher cognitive faculties are compromised. The importance of this top-down look cannot be underestimated as it makes autistic individuals inherently deficient in what are the most quintessential aspects of being human. They are not only well entrenched in a matrix of worldwide diagnostic and therapeutic practices but have caught on in public discourse as well via memes such as “mindblindness” and characterizations of autism as hyper-systemizing or hyper-masculine.

For those of us who do not like the ethical implications of these theories, luckily autism has continued to puzzle the brain of scientists precisely on the basis of the heterogeneity of the ASD phenotype. It’s this wonder about a persistent set of non-social facts at a predictive (1 and 2), a sensory (3), perceptive (4) and/or motor (5) level that seems to have provided the impetus of bottom-up explanations of autism. It is beyond the scope of a blog post to go into the details of these theories – they’re cited as well as linked below for the interested reader – let alone consider their scientific merits. The crucial thing for the present purpose however is that they allow for a completely different narrative of autism that is still – even if only partially – neurological. The bottom-up theories all postulate an atypicality in autism of some basic cognitive mechanism leading to a different way of being in the world. It is this different way of experiencing or interacting with the world which then makes it hard for autistic individuals to penetrate the conventional social world.

In other words, autism leads to atypical behavior but is anything but inherently condemning autistics to an intrinsic social or cognitive deficit. Rather, a view of autistic individuals emerges of realizing a lot on both accounts despite being faced with a world which is not exactly made to their fit. For autistic individuals themselves, these theories try to account for real issues they experience first-hand (such as fatigue, planning, digestive and sensory issues) instead of giving precedence to issues experienced by others when dealing with autistic behavior. Importantly, these theories allow to be integrated with findings from other disciplines of the social sciences (for instance in the context of the embodied view (6 and 7) in philosophy of mind). Maybe they will even allow us to finally transcend the debate on whether autism is ‘merely’ a label unless definitive ‘bio-markers’ are found splitting autistics and non-autistics in two disjoint genetic subspecies. 

This post should not be seen as taking a specific scientific stance but merely as pointing to the fact that the scientific community has not settled on a definitive explanation of autism and that an open mind needs to be kept for multiple possible narratives. This is even more so given the open scientific mind correlates to an open ethical mind in dealing with other human beings.

PS: if you want to experience some of these researchers first-hand, check out the event “Living Autism”

References to recent cognitive science theories:

(1) Sander Van de Cruys et al. (2014 Psychological Review), Precise minds in uncertain worlds: Predictive coding in Autism

(2) Pawan Sinha et al. (2014 PNAS ), Autism as a disorder of prediction

(3) Markram & Markram (2010 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience), The Intense World Theory – a unifying theory of the neurobiology of autism

(4) Mottron et al. (2006 Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders), Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception

(5) Brinker & Torres (2017 Chapter in book: Autism: The Movement Sensing Approach), Why study movement variability in Autism?

(6) Hanne De Jaegher (2013 Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience), Embodiment and sense-making in autism

(7) Thomas Fuchs (2015 Journal of Consciousness Studies), Pathologies of Intersubjectivity in Autism and Schizophrenia


One response to “Autism continues to puzzle the brain

  1. Pingback: ‘Waar zou autisme onderzoek over moeten gaan?’ … autisme en onderzoek – Tistje

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