Autistic Songs

Alan Griswold


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Early Warning Signs

The following two assumptions enjoy widespread acceptance within the academic and research communities:

But I would have us consider an alternative view both to human intelligence and to those so-called early warning signs of autism; because not only are the above two assumptions false, their negations directly support each other.


It has become tantamount to dogma within the scientific community that human intelligence is centered within the human brain, and I am certain I will not make the slightest dent in that conviction anytime soon. Armed with ever more sophisticated brain imaging technology and fortressed by countless experiments attempting to match neuronal activation to a plethora of human tasks, the world of cognitive research expects soon to discover the exact neuronal location of logic, language and the arts, and hopes not long after to describe all the intellectual mechanisms pulling together this tangle of synapses, cortices, and brain matter plasticity. The neuroimaging pictures are indeed vibrant, and the metrics are certainly bountiful; but conceptually, I am convinced all is not well.

Consider the hallmark features of human intelligence—pattern recognition, sophisticated visual-spatial capacity, conceptual logic, mathematical and musical skill, the pragmatic use of abstract language. Does it strike no scientist as even the slightest bit unnerving that these features first made their appearance only quite recently in human history? Almost nothing of what we take and measure for human intelligence today can be found in the behaviors of Homo sapiens from just thirty to fifty thousand years ago, and it was only the slightest hint of such ability that began to emerge near the dawn of recorded time. We gaze with anticipation into our fMRIs and we calculate hopefully all our degrees of significance, but we forget that we peer not just into the brains of our contemporaries, but also into the brains of our more distant ancestors. Thus we must ask—why the sudden and late emergence of all this cranial intelligence for which we so fervently delve? Why could we not have built our modern civilizations way back then, when these same brain structures and capacities already existed? Why did this species tarry until just so recently?

And of course there is that little detail known as the Flynn effect, the observation that intelligence scores have been increasing at roughly three IQ points per decade. What a puzzler that discovery must be for any neuronal-based model of human intelligence, and no wonder those who have staked considerable reputations on such models—including Professor Flynn himself—seem so willing to explain this phenomenon away as mostly a twentieth-century anomaly, one soon to dissipate (demonstrating again that todayís scientist stands far more ready to embrace an unlikely coincidence than question the foundations of an established career).


Me, I would much rather be bold. I would rather negate that first assumption, and place the locus of human intelligence firmly outside the human skull.

If instead of sourcing human intelligence within the human brain, we distribute it throughout the environmental structures we humans have been building all around us, then we arrive at a tangible locale for intelligence that more directly fits what we already know. Tens of thousands of years ago, the human environment was almost entirely biological, and so were the forms of our human intellect: food acquisition, shelter, warmth, sex, avoidance of deadly enemies—these were the sum cognitive focus of a species whose universe extended no farther than the boundaries of the tribe. No clocks, no yardsticks, no musical notes, no truth functions deciding yea and nay; not on the hunter-gathererís grassy plain. Today, and quite suddenly, we no longer live on that plain—our locale has been dramatically shifted, growing both larger and more detailed in ways we have scarcely begun to conceive. And it is no mere coincidence that as our settings have been so dramatically transformed, so have the forms and degrees of our intelligence. With our surroundings now overflowing with structure, pattern, complexity, repetition, embodied conceptualization—much of it decidedly non-biological—our abilities to navigate and master this strange new world are exactly the same skill sets we measure when we place a human being in front of that little booklet called an IQ exam.

It is not our brain that has been changing—there has not passed nearly enough evolutionary time for that. The human brain, plasticity and all, has grown not one iota smarter; for the human brain is not the seat of human intelligence. It is our physical environment—that is the tangible object that has turned so remarkably more brilliant. The form of our physical human surroundings—there can be found the long sought-after location of our increasing cognitive skills.

And the Flynn effect? The Flynn effect resolves into little more than a tautology under this new paradigm of intelligence, for it becomes simply another measure of the increasing amount of pattern and complexity we humans have been embodying into our environment year after year, along with the confirmation that each generation absorbs this strange new information and its mostly non-biological form. Each succeeding generation finds itself born into a set of surroundings more complex, more detailed, more rapid than those perceived by the previous generations, and by necessity learns to navigate and master these new surroundings, and lo and behold finds itself scoring better than all its progenitors on any test designed to capture intelligence. The Flynn effect is not a twentieth-century coincidence; it is not produced by better nutrition, selective breeding or a socially-driven multiplier effect (and Professor Flynn, it is most certainly not produced by proximity to the local college). The Flynn effect has been with us from the time of the great leap forward, and assuming we can learn to embrace this phenomenon, instead of so glibly dismiss it, the Flynn effect can remain with us, and sustain us, for a considerable time to come.


But I can hear your objections in my ear already: have I not placed the cart well before the horse? The essential question, you say, is not that we humans have been constructing a structurally more complex environment, and have been learning to live more skillfully within it—anyone might agree to that—the essential question, you say, is what produced this remarkable transformation? Are not the splendors of modern civilization the unquestionable result of human intelligence, are they not the obvious evidence of its cranial existence?

Well, having absorbed enough logic from the current environment to know that I would not want to be accused of placing a cart well before a horse, let me state unequivocally that it was not preexisting neuronal intelligence that prompted the massive environmental transformation. If it is a cause of human intelligence that we are seeking, then we must direct our attention outside intelligence and search for that catalyst someplace else. So let me turn this discussion to what must seem to be a completely different topic—let us consider the early warning signs of autism.


Within the autism research community, the early behaviors of autistic children have been branded with the most dreadful of reputations, and I am certain I will not prompt the slightest pause in that practice anytime soon. Tarnished with such adjectives as obsessive, worthless, aberrant, autistic behaviors have been cast into one of the psychiatric communityís most profitable and prolific targets, an abundantly fertile field for the development of eradicating therapies, minimalizing drugs, and the not-so-occasional slur. The funding grants are indeed impressive, and the size of the research teams has certainly grown massive; but conceptually, I am convinced all is not well.

Consider the form of those early autistic behaviors—lining up objects, repeating verbal or sung passages, fascination with circles, letters and numbers, turning on and off light switches, rocking, spinning, all the rest. Does it strike no researcher as even the slightest bit unnerving that these behaviors are in no way random or chaotic, that these behaviors cluster yet again and again around the concepts of pattern, logic, repetition and symmetry? Tens of thousands of years ago such concepts had barely scratched the human surface; it was only quite recently such features were embraced by this species as the ones making us distinctly noble. And yet we confidently pronounce autistic behaviors as aberrant, we calculate with smug certainty their substantial difference from the norm, all the while conveniently forgetting that we as Homo sapiens have been jolted quite suddenly into being nothing like our normal animal selves. So I must ask, why the contemptuous dismissal of these distinctive behaviors we have not yet begun to fathom? Why, given our lingering uncertainty about the exact location and genesis of human intelligence—why are we so intent on demonizing what is arguably the most spontaneous occurrence of intellect's most fundamental form?

And of course there is that little detail known as the brilliant autistic outcome, the growing evidence that many autistic individuals can achieve remarkable potential, display unique and surprising ability, mature to lives of stunning productivity—all without the benefit of psychotropic drugs, biomedical treatments or behavior-altering therapies (and some, dare I even suggest this, achieving such outcomes despite such interventions). What a puzzler those outcomes must be for any disorder-based model of autism, and little wonder those who have staked considerable livelihoods on such models, almost the entire research community it would appear, are hurrying to explain such individuals away—as trivial by-products, as insignificant anomalies, as outliers to be ignored (demonstrating again that todayís scientist stands far more ready to slander an experimental subject than jeopardize the source of any funding).


Me, I would much rather be bold. I would rather negate that second assumption, and place the early behaviors of autistic children firmly outside the category of neurological disorder.

If instead of classifying autism as cognitive damage, we consider it to be an alternative and valid form of cognitive perception, then we arrive at a catalyst for human intelligence that does not require the explanatory magic of a nearly instantaneous neurological or genetic transformation. What better, and more natural, means to jolt a species from its strictly biological gaze than to have appear among it members with a decidedly different point of view—now in addition to concerns of food, sex and enemies, there can appear those creeping influences of symmetry, pattern, repetition and form. Through a lack of species recognition, the early perceptions of autistic children become the counterpart to species learning; they arise from a spontaneous need to make sense of experience not well grounded in biological imitation. And thus autistic perception, and the behavior resulting from it, opens windows onto concepts mankind has never considered before, opens windows onto the myriad instances of non-biological form. This collision of autistic and non-autistic perspectives has been many times awkward, no one would argue that; and the difficulties of autistic individuals have been many times onerous, that is not something to be denied. But apologies are not required, and neither are the slanders, for the blended results have been astonishingly prodigious, or had you failed to notice? Are we not all of us, autistic and non-autistic alike, are we not suddenly departed from the hunter-gathererís grassy plain?

Autistic perception is not an affliction, that dogma has badly missed the mark. The study of autism as mental illness has produced not one iota of understanding for this species-changing condition. Autism itself is the key, the key to mankind's physically constructed intelligence. Autistic perspectives, they are what has prompted our environmentís massive structural change. There can be found the long sought-for genesis of our increasing cognitive skills.

And the brilliant autistic outcome? It resolves into little more than expectation under this new paradigm of autism, for it becomes the confirmation that autistic influences have been working transformationally among us for a very long time. Before this species “discovered” mental illness, before it began suffocating unique perspectives under medications and behavior-altering sessions, the vast majority of autistic individuals matured quietly and productively among us, they etched their strangely patterned perceptions into mankindís fast-transfiguring path. And as each human generation found itself born into surroundings embodying more and more of these strangely patterned perceptions—and by necessity learned to navigate and master—lo and behold humanity found itself fast abandoning the strictures of its evolutionary past and fast constructing the intelligence of its future. Autism is not a twentieth-century emergence; it is not the by-product of industrial toxins, genetic defects or brain dysfunctions (and it is most certainly not a condition to be drugged and therapied away). Autism has been among us from the time of the great leap forward, and assuming we can learn to embrace this phenomenon, instead of so harshly dismiss it, the benefits of autism can remain with us, and sustain us, for a considerable time to come.


But I know all this must sound so absurdly impossible, and really, I know no one is currently listening.

So for now I will leave all the researchers to their neuroimaging equipment—I understand how giddy they must be with excitement and what a pretty penny they have paid for the privilege, so I would not dream of distracting them from these momentary pursuits. But after all their picture taking is over, after all their statistical packages have been run, after they have written all the same tired conclusions to all the same tired assumptions, if perhaps a scientist or two should find themselves suddenly grown weary, perhaps a little discouraged, should they think maybe a brief respite or a change of scenery might do them a little good, I would be happy to guide them to the room one over, the one where their experimental subjects bide their time by playing on the floor—lining up toys, echoing passages, spinning and twirling. And I promise I will be gentle with my suggestion, in fact I will just barely whisper it into their ear, that perhaps this is what they have been looking for all along, right here before their eyes—these early warning signs of a dawning human intelligence.

Copyright © 2011 by Alan Griswold
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