Monday, November 14, 2011

Eric Courchesne's new paper: an answer to my problem's etiology?

Lately, the new paper by Eric Courchesne and company has been receiving a fair amount of media attention. It deals with the count of neurons in a small number of postmortem autistic brains. The neuroskeptic has written a pretty decent take of it on his blog. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the paper online anywhere where it is not behind a paywall. UCLA biomed was not open when I went there yesterday in the morning. I hope to someday read the primary source.

In brief, the research group found a far greater number of neurons in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain than in the normal control brains. There were some other abnormalities found in the autistic brains as well, but none in the nonautistic brains. This was a very small sample aged 2-16.

This finding may strengthen some of the research findings previously reported. These are the areas that contain some of the mirror neurons. Regular readers of this blog will recall, I'm interested in mirror neurons and have written about them previously. There is a good deal of research that suggests that mirror neurons may somehow be implicated in the etiology of autism. Either a paucity of MN's or problems with connections could be involved. Though this study obviously would not suggest the former, the latter could be a possible scenario as the excess number of brain cells might have difficulty making connections to various other parts of the brain that would ensure good functioning.

These neurons are only formed during the prenatal period and no new ones grow in the brain after this. This suggests that the brain abnormalities in autism only develop in the womb and not after birth. This suggests evidence against the Age of Autism folks and others who believe that vaccines or some other exposure in the environment after birth caused the autism. I'm sure they have some sort of alternative explanation though. Of course it doesn't rule out some sort of environmental insult during pregnancy.

Nearly my entire life (more than five and a half decades now) I have wondered about the etiology of my problems. One of the first suggestions, as some Gadfly readers will remember was castration anxiety in my youth during the psychoanalytic heyday. One doctor speculated that roseola that I contracted at age one and a half was responsible. But no definitive answers as I don't buy those first two. This study does make some sense in giving some explanations for my disability. One of these areas is Broca's area which is implicated in the motor mechanics of speech. Person's who develop strokes in this area lose their ability to speak. This might be why I stopped speaking at age two and a half. These also comprise the motor areas, so they could account for my handwriting and fine motor coordination problems. However, they don't account for the twiddling (self-stimulatory) behaviors. Of course, even if this were the case with me as an individual, it does not explain why I would have grown all those extra neurons while still in the womb.

It was Courchesne who more than twenty years ago, found abnormalities in parts of the cerebellar vermis in autistics on MRI scans. Shortly after that I was his research subject in a few studies he did. I wrote an article about that

I also wrote a blog posts about some of these experiences.

When I met Courchesne, I was curious as to why some persons with autism (not including myself) had intact motor systems and if they had cerebellar impairments why they would not have ataxia or other motor problems. He stated the reason was that if damage to the cerebellum occurred early enough (during fetal development) there would be no motor impairments. So, if this is true, this might mean analogies between the excess of prefrontal neurons and the lack of connections might not be analogous to aphasias that occur when people have strokes in Broca's area.

So, there is still stuff that is left unanswered and I guess I will never know the etiology of these problems and what areas in my brain don't work correctly.

If I can ever get my hands on the actual paper, perhaps I will write a follow-up blog post.

Addendum: My sister, who's a faculty member of a university and has a subscription to various journals had access to the complete paper and I read the .pdf file. Though I have read the entire paper now, I have nothing more, unfortunately to add to my commentary at this time.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My disability case: The end of the line

I heard from that second lawfirm I hoped would take my SSDI case to district court. They turned me down. This means that my nearly four and a half year pursuit of this matter is over. Though it is disappointing, it is somewhat of a relief not to have this issue hanging over my head anymore. I have not had autism's gadfly for even four years, which means this issue goes back to before this blog existed.

It is true that I did work with some success with my limitations. However, considering how tough I had it, I felt that I should have qualified for this help. As I have stated in previous posts, this was not a handout. I did put more than $40,000 into social security. I tried like hell for more than 27 years to avoid this fate. Because I had some success in getting a few licks in against this figurative 800 lb gorilla I am being punished (or at least that is part of the reason). The government believes that people like me should fend for ourselves. It would seem that effort is punished and decadence and sloth are rewarded. Even the idea that autism is an advantage in the workplace rather than a liability gets credence from the government who funds rogue scientist Morton Gernsbacher and autism speaks has funded her partner in crime Laurent Mottron in the past.

However, I take solace in the fact that even though I'm 56 years old my life is not over and it might not be too late to accomplish something. Maybe even a miracle will happen and I'll be able to make some money again. Previously,I wrote about my bad experiences with the state department of rehabilitation It was quite a long time ago, but I felt pretty hopeless in those days, but I was able to get out and find some work in spite of these mishaps.

So this issue finally comes to an end and I can get on with the next chapter of my life whatever that may be.

I'll just have to remember that you never know what is around the next corner.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dr. Mottron is at it again but where's the beef?

Many people probably remember the well-known television commercial that aired regularly in 1984 for Wendy's hamburgers where the old woman asks, "where's the beef?" This expression certainly rings true in 2011 where we see that rogue autism researcher Laurent Mottron is at it again, claiming that being autistic is an advantage and not a flaw that needs to be corrected. He claims that autistics can make significant contributions to society in "the right environment" but largely fails to elaborate on what this could be, except alluding to Michelle Dawson and others with autism who work in his lab.

Dr. Mottron's research has focused on differences between autistics and typicals in detecting sounds, embedded figures, superiority in such things as musical pitch and ability to perform on the block design test on the Wechsler IQ test. How these skills could possibly relate to being able to perform in a scientific milieu is unclear to me. This hits hard with me personally as I wished to be an autism brain researcher in the hopes of finding what in the brain causes autism but was too impaired to do it.

The rationale given by autism speaks for awarding nearly half a million bucks in funding to this man stated that these strengths he studied could be applied to employment and other issues. In fact Dr. Mottron states:

Too often, employers don’t realize what autistics are capable of, and assign them repetitive, almost menial tasks,” said Mottron. “But I believe that most are willing and capable of making sophisticated contributions to society, if they have the right environment.”

I believe if an autistic person is capable of doing well in any field of endeavor, whether it be medical transcription, computer programming or plumbing, they could demonstrate this capability and the employer would be happy to employ them and not assign them menial tasks. Dr. Mottron also does not account for the behavioral problems of autism which would certainly be a weakness. If an autistic person lost their temper or groped women in the workplace (two reasons I know of for two others on the spectrum besides myself to have been terminated from jobs), they would not care what this person was capable of. Whatever strengths Dr. Mottron alleges autistics have would be cancelled out by the weaknesses in behavior or social skills, resulting in a zero sum or negative outcome in terms of job capability.

Of course, Dr. Mottron, in the media reported articles on his recent commentary in the medical journal, Nature, neglects to mention that a lot of his research mainly focuses on extremely high functioning autistic individuals and not on nonverbal lower functioning autistic individuals who have behavioral problems that might preclude them from being research subjects in an fMRI scanner.

Another problem is that we must question the interpretations of some of the data of Dr. Mottron and his colleagues. In fact as recently pointed out by MJ of the autism jabberwocky blog Dr. Mottron and his colleagues may either be ignorant of even the most rudimentary skills of interpreting statistical data or disingenuously represent data from at least one of their studies into something that it is not.

MJ wrote:

So when the second paper says this in the results section -"The Asperger adults demonstrated an advantage of RPM over Wechsler FSIQ that was significantly greater than that of the non-Asperger adult controls, Mann-Whitney U=366.5, p<.01"That statement is completely unsupported by the data. In pure numerical terms, the difference might seem to be larger, but in terms of actual increased of intelligence that statement is very much in doubt.Another quibble with the results is the use of averages (means) to represent the group rather than a median. If you have a set of non-linear values such as these percentiles, if really isn't valid to take an average because it is going to misrepresent where the middle of the group is. That goes double when the data is badly skewed, as is the case of the Asperger adults' Raven's test in the second paper. In that case the "average" was 74 but the standard deviation is 50(!). For that to happen, the bulk of the data has to be well below the 74th percentile which means the median value would be significantly lower.

So, in the Mottron group's recent paper on superiority of those with Asperger's syndrome on the Raven's matrices test we see that the mean score was 74th percentile but the standard deviation was nearly 50 (not quite 50 as MJ stated but very close). This means the data did not follow a normally distributed bell curve but were rather heavily skewed to one side or were bimodally distributed making the mean value of 74th percentile meaningless.

A simpler explanation may be in order. To use an analogy, let's say there were 100 people on an island. if 45 of them were 8 feet tall, 45 of them were 4 feet tall and 10 of them were 6 feet tall, you would be technically correct in stating that the average height of the islanders was six feet. But it would certainly be misleading to say that the islanders were typically 6 feet tall.

I have to wonder if other data from the Mottron group is interpreted in a similar fashion. Perhaps there is a much smaller sub group of autistics that has extremely superior skills in embedded figures, detecting pitch, etc. and another sub group that has greatly inferior skills with a few just in the middle. I admit I don't know the answer to that, but knowing about how different autistics can be from one another and the way the Mottron group interpreted their data in at least one study we can't really rule that out as a possibility.

So to date, there is questionable evidence that all or even a large subset of autistics has these superior skills that will allegedly help them achieve educational goals and job placement. To the best of my knowledge, Mottron has never given any evidence of correlations or relationships to these skills enabling success or answered why the negatives of behavioral and poor social skills would not cancel these out. Again I must ask you, Dr. Mottron, where's the beef?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Shallow brooks are noisy redux department

Today is autistics speaking day, which MJ of the autism jabberwocky blog
has commented on. I'm not sure whether or not MJ's percentages of higher functioning who are capable of communicating versus lower functioning unable to communicate are accurate. A significant portion of the reported increase in prevalence, I suspect, is because of increased awareness that autism can exist in persons of normal or above average intelligence. However, that may be neither here nor there. MJ does make some excellent points in this post about how the number of autistics unable to communicate or who may not have the inclination or education or both to write blog posts are not being represented.

Another problem is that one of the dirty tricks of the neurodiversity movement is to have members log on using different identities to give the impression that more persons with autism share their view than anyone would have thought and preach Alex Plank's dictum that "most autistics don't want to be cured'.
some time ago, I wrote about one of these unsavory characters doing this as did Elyse Bruce of the Midnight in Chicago blog before me.

This is aside from the demographic issues that I've written in the past about ND being heavily female skewed (Coreen Becker, who originated the autism speaking day, is just one example) and the other problems of these people claiming they represent all of us.

Exactly one year ago today,I wrote a blog post entitled "shallow brooks are noisy" to comment on when this event first started. This is still true today. Ms. Becker and other neurodiversity proponents at best have nothing to say that is not superficial that has not been said ad nauseum. At worst they are preaching nothing but hate mongering and propaganda how autism is a gift and Bill Gates and Einstein were autistic, so autistics can do just fine and there are no worries.

Well, let me have my say on this auspicious day. I hate having this disability and having accomplished so little at age 56. I hate not being to have good fine motor coordination, not being able to support myself and being given the runaround by various government agencies. I hate my unpopularity with others, the celibacy that goes with this. I hate that Iwas a chronic bedwetter until age 13. I long for a cure, but I realize I am a discontented child crying for toasted snow as the Arab proverb goes.

Last year I pointed out to Ms. Becker that indeed still waters run deep and she and her friends are some noisy shallow brooks. She replied to me that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. This may be true. The majority of neurodiversity proponents are probably know nothing college kids who have too much time on their hands and spend it protesting. As MJ pointed out, others more severely afflicted aren't in a position to refute what these people say. But what about their parents? One problem is that parents of autistic children are often busy trying to find treatments. They are busy litigating in court for treatments they feel they are entitled to under IDEA or whatever government benefits they need to make life easier. Though I don't know first hand, I believe that having a child like this is far more time consuming than a typical child, though I know some people might not like hearing the sad truth. So, the parents don't have the time to tell their side of the story either in many cases, one disadvantage they have over the unencumbered neurodiversitites. Ergo, they don't have time to lobby government officials, organize protests against ASAN akin to the protests organized against Autism Speaks, etc.

Is Ms. Becker correct with her squeaky wheel analogy? I don't know. I realize that autism speaks has listened to their concerns. One example is the affirmative action in recruiting a high school dropout on their scientific advisory board along with the M.D.'s and Ph.Ds. The young activists may have successfully pushed for other changes. But we still have the combating autism act, we still have scientific research in genetics and neuroscience hoping to find a cure or treatments that will lead to a better life for these people and their parents. Let's hope another proverb rings true: The dogs may bark but the caravan moves on.