Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A neurodiverse economist

I see that the neurodiversity movement has picked up another proponent in George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen. He has recently written a rather interesting essay which gives the neurodiversity movement a rather enthusiastic shout-out. It is curious exactly what interest Dr. Cowen has in autism. One notable fact is that he was a colleague of economics nobel prize winner Vernon Smith, who has claimed to have Asperger's syndrome. They both, at one time, were on the faculty of George Mason. Other than that, the reason of Cowen's interest in autism in general and neurodiversity in particular is something that I really don't understand.

Cowen starts off in his essay by comparing negative attitudes towards autistics to racist discourse that at one time was present in universities. I find this quite ironic in light of the frequently hateful rhetoric that most ND proponents seem to espouse such as the insults of my mother by Clay Adams and Phil Gluyas, the condescending cheap shots about my special education experiences from the late but not great "Alyric", also a rather nasty post by the well known neurodiversity blogger "Autism bitch from hell" who suggests that all persons on the autistic spectrum who don't happen to agree with her enlightened view of autism should be strangled to death and turned into cat food. Not to mention David Andrew's profane diatribes against any person on the spectrum he happens to disagree with. The comparisons to Nazis and eugenicists that are often made by various ND proponents, etc. He goes to talk about an essay which details the costs of autism to society stating how offensive he and some persons on the autism spectrum find this.

Cowen goes on to write:

A lot of people at colleges are aware of dealing with autism (and Asperger's syndrome; I will refer generally to the autism spectrum) in their "special needs" programs. The more complex reality is that there is a lot more autism in higher education than most of us realize. It's not just "special needs" students but also our valedictorians, our faculty members, and yes — sometimes — our administrators.

As a former alumnae of "special needs" program and someone who was not my class valedictorian, never was a university faculty member or college administrator, I must wonder about the basis of such a bold statement.

He gives Temple Grandin, his colleague Vernon Smith and Richard Borcherds, an award winning mathematician, as examples of these. He goes on to acknowledge that he does not believe there has been an epidemic of autism but that there has always been a high stable rate of autism, another belief perpetuated by club ND. He states that there are probably more than a million autistic adults out there. Assuming that there are more than a million autistic adults, then 3 out a million seems to be the exception rather than the rule as Cowen implies.

Grandin may in fact be an exception to that rule. She has presented with autistic symptoms at age 3, unable to speak and went from feces smearing severely autistic to Ph.D. in animal science and professor at U of Colorado. Kudos to her.

Vernon Smith claimed in an interview in 2005 (at the age of 78) that he had Asperger's syndrome or at least symptoms of it. He expressed inability with social situations (in spite of the fact he was able to marry and produce children) and the ability to zone in and out. Yet, claimed that his AS was a virtue because it helped him to concentrate and produce great economic works. On reading his memoir which is available in Google books, it is unclear if he was in fact ever diagnosed with AS by a clinician. If he was, there is no mention of it in his autobiography. It would seem strange that if he were in fact diagnosed he would not have mentioned it in his interview and in his book. Apparently in the 1990s at the age of 68, Smith feeling he might have ADD underwent some psychologic testing, the circumstances are rather vague. Smith then takes Baron-Cohen's autism quotient test and based on those scores surmises he might have symptoms of Asperger's. As far as I can tell there is no other basis for Smith's having an ASD.

Richard Borcherds, however, presents a somewhat different story. At a somewhat younger age than Smith (38) he decided that based on problems with social situations, lack of friends and an inability to talk normally on the telephone that there was a possibility he had Asperger's syndrome. Based on consults with Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleague Sally Wheelwright and some testing, there is some speculation as to whether or not Borcherds does in fact have Asperger's. Histories were also obtained from his parents. Baron-Cohen writes about this in his book, The Essential Difference. I am also not sure whether or not either Baron-Cohen or Wheelwright are in fact clinical psychologists qualified to make a legitimate diagnosis. I think it is quite possible they are merely cognitive psychologists who do research and neither has any formal training as a clinician. I will stand corrected if anyone who may happen to read this gives evidence to the contrary. Though there is a more detailed assessment of Borcherds than there apparently was of Smith, it is still unclear whether in fact Borcherds is on the autism spectrum. Baron-Cohen writes:

One might question whether Richard Borcherds really merits a diagnosis at all, given how well adapted he is. Certainly he is not currently severe enough in his symptoms to warrant a diagnosis in adulthood, as his symptoms are not interfering with his daily functioning. In the jargon of the diagnostic criteria, he is not "suffering any impairment in his daily life"........

So, at least two of the three examples of ASD academics are rather suspect to say the least.

He then goes on to rehash the Michelle Dawson/Laurent Mottron arguments of the autistics who according to studies have superior pitch, are not as easily fooled by optical illusions as NT's, better at solving certain puzzles and are better at recognizing certain patterns, etc. Of course Cowen fails to acknolwedge, as do both Dawson and Mottron, the limitations of these studies in that the research subjects in these studies are often a much higher ratio of male to female autistics than given in the general population of autistics, have relatively normal IQ scores and are quite high functioning as compared to many other autistics. Due to the fact that autistics may move around and artifacts caused by their inability to sit still in an MRI scan or while having an EEG reading may limit the research to certain subjects, these limitations should always be acknowledged; unfortunately they are not. Also, what real life applications an ability to interpret patterns, musical pitch, and an inability to be fooled by optical illusions has is beyond my comprehension and sophistication to understand. Perhaps Dr. Cowen could explain how these autistics might not be impaired in other areas and how an inability not to be fooled by an optical illusion would enable the autistic to become a college professor or administrator in a major university.

To his credit though, Cowen does acknowledge that there are at least some autistics who can't hold jobs and are truly impaired by their disabilities. Dr. Cowen should know I am one of these people. I could not even cut it as a medical transcriptionist so i had to retire. I am not ever going to get a Ph.D. degree and be a college professor.

Dr. Cowen: Unlike Dr. Borcherds, I suffer from multiple impairments in my daily life. I have a defective f***ed up brain. . Your essay does not benefit me and the neurodiversity stereotypes you present in your essay only do harm.


Marius Filip said...

The special visual abilities may be helpful to some.

I am referring to the case of Stephen Wiltshire who's been able to paint Rome in great detail following a trip of only half an hour by helicopter over the city.

Apart from these niches, such skills are rather useless.

One cannot be a better plumber, or canvas designer, or electronic repairman or whatever else which requires good vision simply by having resistance to optical illusions and a better ability to grasp a large amount of visual detail.

The same is true for enhanced musical pitch which doesn't produce better musicians, etc.

I don't quite understand what's the clue with this economist having a say in the matter of disability rights. If he had an opinion in the field of disability economics, I'd understand.

But Neurodiversity?

Stephanie said...

I guess Tyler Cowen just decided one day that that he was "autistic" and decided to inform the world about how great it is and how "autistic people" are being oppressed. Gee, I've never heard this story before...

jonathan said...

Stephanie: I don't think Cowen is claiming to be autistic but, from having read some blurbs of his forthcoming book, "create your own economy", he does seem to think that he has an "autistic way of thinking". I went to look for the book at Borders near where I live but they did not have it in stock yet as it has only recently been published. He writes more details about neurodiversity in this book. As soon as I have found the book and read what he has written about neurodiversity I will write a follow-up post in Gadfly.

Stephanie said...

"autistic way of thinking"

What does he think this is? I'm curious...

"I am referring to the case of Stephen Wiltshire who's been able to paint Rome in great detail following a trip of only half an hour by helicopter over the city."

Again, what makes this interesting is the circus show, not the actual art. Many artists paint/draw architectural work (as do all architects) and they're not famous like Stephen.

And how do you know other artists who draw architectural work CANNOT draw by memory? You don't have to be autistic to have a photographic memory.

I've studied art and artists a great deal and some artists can sit down and draw anything and some need a photographic reference. MANY artists can draw by memory. Some do it naturally and others teach themselves how to draw without a reference (there are books out there about how to draw completely from memory/without a reference). It is definitely not impossible to be able to draw from memory and not be autistic.

Stephen has been more than a little exploited...I know I wouldn't be able to handle being in the spotlight like that.

Stephanie said...

I love this,

"diagnosed autistics are very often those people who encounter major problems in life."

Good thinking, Einstein.

"Most higher-status autistics don't ever show up for diagnosis or intervention, and many of them have no great need for it or no real awareness of it, or, even if they are having difficulties, they fear the stigma of a diagnosis."

If they have no "need" for a diagnosis than they do not have a disorder that warrants a diagnosis.

"Common samples of autistics, as you find studied in a typical research paper, show many more problems, and many fewer successes, than is most likely the case in a true population sample of autistics."

What "true population sample" is he talking about? The "autistic" people like Katie Miller, Alex Plank and club ND who are not really disabled, who don't even meet the criteria for ANY ASD?

jonathan said...

Stephanie, I have just purchased Cowen's book, Create Your Own Economy. I am about 3/4 of the way finished with it. It is quite clear that the "true populationsamples of autistics" that he is referring to are the neurodiversity crowd, some of whom are not terribly disabled. Amanda Baggs, of course, is one example, he uses and I suppose it could be argued that Amanda is severely disabled, though her diagnosis of autism is somewhat suspect as you have written on your blog. He also uses Michelle Dawson as another example and states that by most standards she would be considered "very autistic" rather than "mildly autistic". This guy is a real piece of work. After I finish the book, I plan to write a follow-up blog piece on this guy and his book. Stay tuned.

Stephanie said...

I can't wait.

I don't even consider myself "very autistic" and I'm more severe than Michelle. I consider myself, overall, "moderate." I have severe autism with a high IQ, HFA, so I think I'm pretty "moderate" compared to most.

I should send him the link to the "Amanda Baggs Controversy" blog.

jonathan said...

Stephanie: You (or anyone else who wants to) can send Cowen email at TCowen@GMU.Edu Might be a good idea to send him a link to the Amanda Baggs controversy blog or perhaps other comments you might have on his essay and his book (if you decide it is worth your while to read his book, which I advise only doing on an empty stomach)

Anonymous said...

If you don't like Cowen's economics, you make like Post Autistic Economics, which is the real name of an economics journal.


Here you can find some economists that like to use autistic as an adjective for changing how economics is taught.

John Best said...

This guy has been reading too much junk from Neuroinsanity. He sounds like a clone of Frank Klein.

jonathan said...

Roger: Though "Alyric" was too cowardly to ever sign her own name to her posts, I presume this person was a woman rather than a man. I don't know if I would classify her as a troll, but she was a very nasty ND type, who would be rude and abusive and engage in name calling towards anyone who did not agree with her ND philosophy. She reportedly recently passed away from cancer. If you go to ASAN's web page you will see a eulogy to her there. They criticize John Best for being so nasty but eulogize this vicious hatemonger. Go figure.

I don't know if you are thinking of the same person, but this is who "Alyric" was.

K said...

"vicious hatemonger."

I had some disagreements with Alyric, however, she never struck me as a vicious hatemonger.

I think though that you would be more persuasive for your beliefs if you did not attack a dead woman. Let's save words like vicious hatemonger for those that really deserve it, not people we have a disagreement with.

jonathan said...

Kent: Alyric was nothing but a petty cyberbully. I am not attacking her, only responding to Roger who was curious as to who she was and what she was like.

Being dead does not absolve her of her bad behavior.

Eric said...

I have just Tyler Cowen's book and I am pursuing my Master's degree in Special Education. I have had a special interest in Autism for some time.

Tyler Cowen is in no way encouraging stereotypes. He is not saying that all individuals with autism have super abilities. With most disabilities, there seems to be a continuum on which we all fall. Up to this point, society has only focused on the low end of autism. As our understanding of autism increases, so do the number of individuals who are diagnosed. Many of these cases will be very high functioning.

On another note, the book is not about autism. Tyler Cowen uses autistic tendencies to explain the modern digitized world, which he explains with great insight.