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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


The Changing Face of Autism

“Thinking in Pictures,” is a phrase used long before Temple Grandin did for the title of her own book to describe the way she perceives the world. It is a phrase that is used by many people with various diagnosed learning disabilities, dyslexia, and autism spectrum disorder to describe the way they understand the world and how they think. In order to comfort parents, many artists, writers and scientists were able to achieve a great deal with some form of substantial learning disability: Hans Christian Anderson, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Jefferson, Harvey Cusing, Auguste Rodin, Leonardo Da Vinci, George Patton, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James, Woodrow Wilson, Nelson Rockefeeler, William Butler Yeats, Lewis Carroll and someone we hear little about, Michael Faraday, who Thomas West introduces in his Overview of In the Mind’s Eye.

In 1841, Michael Faraday was recognized as one of the leading scientific minds of Queen Victoria’s Britain (West). Faraday’s visual imagination, more akin to a poet than a scientist’s, his mind’s eye, is responsible “for many fundamental discoveries in chemistry and physics although he hated these specialist terms. He preferred to call himself a `philosopher.’” (West, p.29). His most known achievement was the concept of subtle electromagnetic “lines of force” as well as the concept of the nonvisible electromagnetic “field.” “So sensitive was Faraday to these `lines of force’ that for him they were `as real as matter.’ His powerful visual conception of these ideas provided the basis for James Clerk Maxwell’s famous mathematical equations which, in turn, provided the foundation for modern physics by defining the relationship between light, electricity and magnetism” (West, p.29). They were also the foundation for Einstein’s later theory of relativity. Faraday was horrible at mathematics and could not transcribe his intuitive, visual theories which are the basis for the way we live today – “Faraday perhaps the greatest electrical inventor of all, was completely innocent of mathematics, and he developed his notion of lines of force in a remarkably unsophisticated way, picturing almost like rubber bands (West). There was ambivalence towards Faraday in the scientific community – “showing their difficulty in taking seriously a scientist who was not a mathematician, no matter how original, productive or prescient the scientist may have been” (West, p.30).

By the 1860’s Maxwell, an admirer of Faraday, put his theories into mathematical analysis, which proved to be solid. “Maxwell explicitly stated that the development of his own equations was merely a translation of Faraday’s ideas into conventional mathematical form.” (p.31).

In terms of thinking in pictures, Thomas West states, “One might wonder whether the time for this mode of thought has entirely passed, or whether there is much value to be gained by returning to it to deal with some difficult contemporary problems….A partial answer to this question might be obtained by reminding ourselves that `sensitivity’ to `lines of force,’ also seems partly to characterize the thought of Albert Einstein. Einstein’s `productive’ thought was intensely visual in nature…” (West, p.33)

It is interesting now to note that Faraday expressed a learning disability, Einstein, possibly dyslexia or ASD (I’m still not sure whose poster child Einstein really is) and a notable bunch of leading thinkers had tremendous difficulty in typical learning environments. In reading about dyslexia and learning disabilities in Thomas West’s In The Mind’s Eye, I am reminded how many a disability is really a trend, perhaps a fabrication of our day in the sense that we identify absent or weak skills in people while ignoring strengths on the basis of what we value.

In the late 1800’s, in a literary society, and until more recently, people with dyslexia were considered “stupid,” or cognitively delayed. While many dyslexics will attest that they expend an enormous amount of energy compensating for their deficit, in other words, disguising it, it is also well recognized that people with dyslexia have a number of significant or special abilities, primarily visual-spatial ones. In the 1980’s more prominent people began to reveal their dyslexia. “As dyslexia and learning disabilities have become more clearly identified with persons of high intelligence and ability, these conditions seem less frightening and people are less reluctant to admit the problem and seek appropriate help.” (p.46) Today, we would hardly consider dyslexia a major “disorder” requiring a “cure.” We have learned to appreciate the abilities and have come to learn to teach people with dyslexia so that we hardly think twice about it.

It is on this last point I will posit that Autism is the new Dyslexia. It is the New Trend in the disability realm -- being touted as an elusive disorder, a “behaviour,” and prescribed limiting modals of teaching, while a multi-modal approach would respect the unique learning styles and perceptions of the Autistic. I also propose that Autism, like Dyslexia-Past, is a construction of our society -- our expectations of what is considered “typical” behaviour and performance, as defined by our economy and educational system. In our economy we value language – our world is filled with marketing symbols and verbal messages. Language is also the sine qua non of development if we take a look at modern development “scales” as one example. Classrooms are taught primarily with text books. For children who do not think literally, the education system is quite a challenge. Further, as West notes, “our educational system, in focusing on remediation of certain disabilities, may be dealing with only half a condition, and he least interesting half. Somehow, a way needs to be found to deal with a very broad range of skill levels to address both unusual abilities and special difficulties in the same individuals” (p.41). We often note the people in history who have succeeded despite their disability, when we should be noting that they succeeded because of it. The value of particular abilities is time specific. Today, we value a literal and literary society. We value a homegenized society at the expense of possibly losing a huge pool of gifted, but unusual people.It is because of the fact that the brain is “wired” differently, for the reason that some people with ASD sense the world or see in pictures, that many major achievements have been realized.

I have argued earlier in this blog, and West seems to agree, that computerization of current systemized professions like law and medicine, will change the face of our economy yet again. If we have a society that appreciates visual-spatial intellgience, and an economy that rewards it, this may change the face of autism all together.

Autism and its prevalence of diagnosis because of changes in the DSM IV in 1993, has become a new economy unto itself – full of interventions, tests that are akin to snake-oil salesmen preying on unknowing and terrified parents. As a parent, I would like to see less hype in the Autism communities, and more work being done in appreciating our kids for who they are while obtaining the support and strategies they require. I prefer that my child not be treated as an elusive specimen requiring reams of data.

“Einstein first played with images in the visual right hemisphere, the apparent source of new ideas or perceptions of order, possibly relatively independently of conventional thought, current scientific understanding and education….Such observations as Einstein’s occur frequently in the literature of creativity. The concept of two modes of consciousness has been cropping up in the medial literature for at least a hundred years, particularly with reference to artists, musicians, and composers. What is new is that research on the two hemispheres of the brain has yielded such substantial evidence that serious investigators have been forced to reverse a major trend of scientific thought (behaviorism) and not only recognize once again, the concept of consciousness, but also entertain the concept that there are not one but two major modes of consciousness, each fundamentally different from the other – one that we know a little about, the other that we know almost nothing about.” (p.26). In observing and appreciating my son's perceptual abilities and trying to understand them, I believe I am coming closer to understanding autism than many a scientist.

I feel we have lost sight of the big picture. I believe that noting intelligence – those who have made remarkable achievements because of the special wiring of their brain, need to be mentioned for the sake of understanding autism and learning disabilities in general. By remembering these marvellous stories of success, people with autism may be able to gain access to education they require and deserve. It took society to realize that prominent people of their time had dyslexia for it to receive different teaching approaches and strategies. I believe the same has to happen with autism.

I also believe that we may be focusing in too closely on autism – putting it under a microscope – to the detriment of those who have been diagnosed with it. “Sometimes if you focus in too closely, too early, you run the risk of losing sight of a larger pattern, one that is only visible by stepping back a distance, to get a view of several variations on a theme, a view of the pattern of the larger whole.” (West, p.80). I think all parents can relate to viewing every little motion as something to do with an "autistic behaviour," rather than a typical course of development. It is also ironic that in doing so, we may be losing sight of the wonderful processing that is occuring but which we cannot see or understand.

I can hear the gasps as I write this. Yet, I think we all have a lot to learn from history. We all seem to acknowledge that Autism’s landscape -- it’s shape, our perspectives on it and more specifically, our children -- is changing from day to day. Let us all keep an open mind for the benefit of our children.


Blogger Brett said...

Here's a thought that came to mind as I read this great post: Perhaps it isn't that individuals have learning disabilities, but rather our system of eductation suffers from a teaching disability.



ps. As an engineering student, I remember well Maxwell's equations and Faraday's visualization. I consider myself quite a visual thinker, but I had nothing but problems with both semesters of Fields and Waves. What a nightmare!

6:42 PM  
Blogger Zilari said...

I loved Fields and Waves! Those were my favorite classes in college.

10:12 PM  
Anonymous Bonnie Ventura said...

Here's a good article that discusses the educational strengths and weaknesses of visual-spatial thinkers without using disability language:

The Gifted Visual Spatial Learner

Also, "thinking in pictures" is only one of many different variations of visual-spatial thinking. Some people have a thought process that is more like spatial maps, without clear visual details. Hyperlexic folks often think in written words, like a computer screen scrolling (this is mainly what I do, although there are a few maps and pictures in the mix).

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting ideas.I have bipolar disorder, high anxiety.When I am very anxious I can get into some "behaviours" that would be labelled autistic if I had been labelled autistic but since I am not they are called something else.I am generally good with words when I need to to get a point across but my emotions come to me in pictures and I have no words for these. When i try to explain I can only use metaphor and people do not understand.This makes me more anxious.This makes me believe that it is other people who bring out the so called behaviours which are really manifestations of frustration. There is more than one way to be non verbal. The first is when you are unable to speak and the second is when you speak and no one understands. Of course the second is not really non verbal, it is more other people rendering you non existent, unreal.Like autism, I think bipolar is another "disabilty" flavour of the month. Don't tell the scientific community this, but they have spent billions of dollars and they still do not know what they are doing. As for spectrums, once you create one, you can make the umbrella so big that everyone can fit in.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Kristina Chew said...

Disability has always been with us, just not by the same name; think of the light-year advances in medical care of the past century. People have always lost limbs to war and gangrene, and Homer presents examples of "slower cognitive functioning." But disability as such is a creation of the modern world, with its ideas about "the normal" and "the norm." We ought not to gasp at the sight of difference, whether the wheelchair, the leg ending at the knee, the big boy who speaks like a toddler.

8:27 PM  

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