Autistic Songs

Alan Griswold


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Thanks - Now Hereís the Back of Our Hand

It remains amazing to me how articulate autistic children can be, and remains equally amazing to me how dense and cruel autism scientists can be in response.

In the spring of 2009, press releases were widely circulated regarding the results of a report published in the journal Nature, Two-year-olds with Autism Orient to Non-social Contingencies Rather than Biological Motion (Klin et al. 2009). The reportís introduction reads as follows:

“Typically developing human infants preferentially attend to biological motion within the first days of life. This ability is highly conserved across species and is believed to be critical for filial attachment and for detection of predators. The neural underpinnings of biological motion perception are overlapping with brain regions involved in perception of basic social signals such as facial expression and gaze direction, and preferential attention to biological motion is seen as a precursor to the capacity for attributing intentions to others. However, in a serendipitous observation, we recently found that an infant with autism failed to recognize point-light displays of biological motion, but was instead highly sensitive to the presence of a non-social, physical contingency that occurred within the stimuli by chance. This observation raised the possibility that perception of biological motion may be altered in children with autism from a very early age, with cascading consequences for both social development and the lifelong impairments in social interaction that are a hallmark of autism spectrum disorders. Here we show that two-year-olds with autism fail to orient towards point-light displays of biological motion, and their viewing behaviour when watching these point-light displays can be explained instead as a response to non-social, physical contingencies—physical contingencies that are disregarded by control children. This observation has far-reaching implications for understanding the altered neurodevelopmental trajectory of brain specialization in autism. This study points in a number of interesting directions.”

The report goes on to describe the study in more detail, outlining how autistic children and control groups were shown side-by-side videos of point-light animations formed from scenarios played out by human actors, with one display being shown right side up and forwards running in time (so that the light points had some resemblance to human motion), the other display being shown upside down and running backwards in time (so that the light points had random appearance and were not synchronized to the accompanying sound track). Using eye gaze for measure, the researchers first demonstrated that non-autistic controls showed more preference for the right-side-up display, whereas autistic children seemed to show no particular preference for either display. This apparently was the original purpose of the study, to demonstrate that non-autistic children have a “normal,” and therefore “healthy,” response to biological motion, whereas autistic children do not have a similar response—just one more wood chip on the autism-as-disorder lumber pile.

However, in one of the trials, in which the human actor was playing pat-a-cake (with the clapping sound prominent on the sound track), the researchers noticed that a fifteen-month-old autistic girl—who in the other trials showed no particular preference for either display—revealed in this instance a clear and intense preference for the upright image. Since it was only in the upright image that the clapping sound corresponded to the motions of the point-light display, the researchers wondered if it was the synchronized clapping that the autistic girl was responding to, and after re-examining all their data and after developing further trials to confirm this “serendipitous” discovery, the researchers concluded that a preference for non-biological pattern was consistent and significant across the entire autistic group.

Notice what has happened. Due to the articulate response of one autistic child (along with the corroborating responses of her autistic cohorts), the overall findings of this study were greatly improved from what they otherwise would have been. The findings could now be summarized in the following manner:

Although these findings are not nearly as new as the reportís press releases would have us believe (they are consistent with many other findings regarding the primary distinction between autistic and non-autistic perception), the studyís enhanced conclusions are at least more valuable than they would have been based on what the researchers initially had in mind, for the enhanced conclusions provide a more accurate picture of what autistic perception actually is, as opposed to just another worn-out description of what autistic perception is not (not to mention, the enhanced results add also to our knowledge of non-autistic perception). It would seem therefore that the studyís researchers owe an extreme debt of gratitude to that one articulate autistic girl, the one who pointed them in the right direction, the one who helped them see what had actually been in front of their eyes all along.

So how did the members of the autism research community decide to repay this debt of gratitude? Why, they repaid this child in the same way autism researchers have always responded to articulate autistic children—they gave her the back of their hand.


Here is a sampling of quotations given in response to the Klin et al. study:

From Ami Klin, the studyís lead author: “Our hope is to detect vulnerabilities for autism as early as possible, so as to intervene with the hope to capitalize on the babiesí brain malleability.”

From Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health: “For the first time, this study has pinpointed what grabs the attention of toddlers with [autism spectrum disorders]. In addition to potential uses in screening for early diagnosis, this line of research holds promise for development of new therapies based on redirecting visual attention in children with these disorders.”

From Geraldine Dawson, Chief Science Officer of Autism Speaks, an autism charity group devoted to the distinctly uncharitable task of curing and/or eradicating autism: “These findings could potentially be useful in detecting infants at risk for autism very early in life. It is important to use therapeutic strategies for children with autism that help draw their attention to people, including their facial expressions, and gestures.”

Let me see if I have this straight. This young autistic girl, along with her study group cohorts, has helped open these researchersí eyes to the fact that autistic individuals do not have randomly damaged perception, but instead respond positively, consistently and usefully to a particular form of stimulus that can be found regularly within their environment, but the researchersí one and only response to this discovery is to suggest forcible removal of this preferred form of perception from autistic children and to offer instead mass substitution of the one type of stimulus autistic children have markedly demonstrated they do not respond to. Absolutely amazing.

Note that if I were to suggest that non-autistic children could be greatly improved by forcibly redirecting them away from biological and social stimuli and towards a non-stop bombardment of pattern-based perceptions, this while their brains were still malleable enough to be re-formed, I would be decried for both my folly and my cruelty. But somehow, when that same corresponding approach is suggested for autistic children, it is considered to be the height of modern scientific insight, is considered to be the epitome of good autism science.

Sadly enough, so it is.


My hope is that one day, after that articulate autistic girl has had the opportunity to grow up and comes to understand what kind of blind, aping response was made to her, she is able to track down those so-called scientists Klin, Insel and Dawson, and in the literal manner autistic individuals are apt to prefer, she gives them the back of her hand.

The intellectual and moral bankruptcy of autism science has never been more apparent.

Copyright © 2011 by Alan Griswold
All rights reserved.