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Francesca Happé
An Introduction to Psychological Theory
Published by Harvard University Press, MA in 1994
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©1999


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Answering the question, "What is autism?" is like answering the question, "What is an apple?" to a Martian, Happé tells in the opening of this book. How you answer the question depends on your assumption about what the Martian wishes to do with the information. Do you describe how to recognize an apple, do you say it's good to eat, that it grows on a tree, that it's an symbol of the forbidden fruit in the Bible, that worms grow in it, that it only bears fruit in cold climates — all these are valid answers and involve a different perspective on what the Martian might wish to know about the apple.

Developmental disorders are classified by Morton & Frith into three categories: biological, cognitive, and behavioral, and often have components of all three. (Page 2) Does autism stem from a biological, cognitive, or behavioral cause? There is obviously some combination of all three at work. It is clear that the behavioral aspects are maladaptive or "defective," but the cognitive capabilities of many autistics are superior to the norm, and, lacking a viable biological theory, the final determination of whether the cognitive and behavioral aspects of autism stem from a biological defect or advantage is yet ahead of us. Here is Happé's way of saying that we don't know what the biological basis for autism is, up until now:

[page 3] In Chapter 3, the diagnosis of autism is discussed, and the focus is on the behavioural level — since autism is currently recognized on the basis of behavioural features rather than, for example, biological aetiology.

In other words, we know what autistics do, but we don't know why they do what they do. There is a strong sense that the biological problem is a "defect" as shown in the next passage, but I would caution the reader to withhold judgment about whether it is a defect or not. I say "or not" because our language is replete with words for defects and lacking in a good single word for the opposite of a defect. Consider that "defect" is used in connection with autism as meaning, "something that causes inadequacy or failure." What is the opposite of that? What is one word that means "something that provides super-adequacy and success"? Roget gives in his thesaurus the following synonyms for "defect": inferiority, deficit, weakness, shortfall, insufficiency, blemish, and all of these describe the way that autism's biological origins are thought of, up until now.

In the course of this essay I plan to introduce a way of thinking about autism that has the unique feature of considering its biological etiology as due not to a defect, but to an advantage, an superiority, a surfeit, a super-sufficiency, a beautiful feature of human beings — in scientific terms, a biological change that provides an additional capability, a mutation.

Surely a mutation that provided additional capability to a human being would be instantly recognized as such and highly valued by all. That would be the expected consensus, but reality seems to fall short of that ideal. Let me call the reader's attention to a fine book by Jean Auel, The Clan of the Cave Bear. Ayla, with her splendid mutation that we now know as the Cro-Magnon neo-cortex (added brain size), grew up in a family of Neanderthals with lesser brain capacity. Not only was she not admired and respected for her greater abilities, but she was reviled by her clansmen, thrown out of the tribe with her baby, and abandoned to die in the wilderness. Yes, Jean Auel is a novelist, not a scientist, but she has given us a deep insight to what may be going on with autistic people in our society, up until now. If they have a mutation which provides additional brain capacity in some fashion, and they grow in a society of others who do not have this capacity, they may be treated as "retards" and "social misfits" by the unfeeling and spoken of as having a "defect" by even the most caring of parents and scientists, up until now.

In the remainder of this essay, I ask the reader to note how uniformly that its presumed biological origin, while unknown at this time, is consistently referred to by synonyms for the word defect, and to remember that the very usage of this word may be handicapping those who are searching for clues as to the biological etiology of autism. Here's an example — note the usage of the word handicap, my italics added:

[page 3] However, at the biological level people with autism are almost certainly different from people who do not suffer from autism — something in the anatomy or neurophysiology of their brains is responsible for their handicap, and is not present in "normal" people.

What if we were to take only the "superior capabilities" — note the need for two words — of the autistic person and look for possible brain mutations that could account for them? If Ayla's Clan had done that, they would have discovered the cause of her strange behaviors and learned to cope with them rather than to disparage them. Starting from this perspective we may find ourselves creating a theory of autism that will point us to the very brain structures that are involved in the mutation that leads to the developmental disorders we label "autism." I will omit any negative aspects from the passages in order to focus on the capabilities.

[page 9] "Excellent rote memory" - the children Kanner saw showed an ability to memorize large amounts of effectively meaningless material (e.g. an encyclopaedia index page) . . .

[page 9] . . . appeared to happiest when left alone. . . . desire for the preservation of sameness. . . . the children repeated the language they heard . . . [increased] sensitivity to stimuli . . .

[page 19] . . . non-verbal ability (on, for example, jigsaw-type tests) often far exceeds verbal skills . . .

[page 46] The results showed that while less than 70 per cent of the 4-year-old children passed the photograph task, 100 per cent of the autistic subjects understood that the photograph showed a no-longer-actual scene.

[page 48] A preliminary study of self-report of inner experience of three very able people with autism found that these subjects described their mental contents entirely in terms of pictures in the head.

[page 123] The authors observed that the subject [an artistic autistic man] "began his drawing by a secondary detail and then progressed by adding contiguous elements" . . .

If we carefully consider these capabilities of the autistic person, we generate an image of additional image-processing capability in the brain. If one is able to retrieve a page of numbers as a coherent visual image, it is simple to read off the numbers as if we had somehow "memorized" them - which for the normal person usually means long repetitions of auditory information for storage and recall. That's an activity that few school kids, if any, ever enjoyed, in my experience. The jig-saw tests seem to require the ability to rotate visual images in one's brain based on the edge information rather than the colors on the pieces. The photographic task was easiest for those with the best visual image recall. In other words, if the autistic child had a photograph (sustained visual memory) in its head that matched that of the camera, so it was easy for it to answer where was the cat in the photograph (on the rocker), even though the position of the cat in the scene had moved from the rocker to the bed.

With all the above evidences of an advanced visual-information-processing capability, it should not be surprising to read in the quote from page 48 that autistic persons reported that their thinking in their heads is based on visual images or pictures. In a society such as ours, one that highly prizes verbal thinking in one's head over visual thinking, it should not be surprising that visual thinkers such as artists are thought to be strange and unusual. Artists can talk normally and thus can have internal dialogue (auditory-digital thoughts), whereas autistic children, unless they are carefully taught at an early age, are lacking in such internal dialogue, but have superior visual thinking capabilities, to the extent that some become amazing visual artists, such as the man in the last quote, who didn't require an overall sketch before beginning an intricate drawing. I am no great artist, but if I had a projected image on my drawing tablet, that's the procedure I would use — I'd begin by drawing "a secondary detail and then progress by adding contiguous elements." Here again is strong evidence for additional visual-information-processing capability by the autistic person.

Nikola Tesla, the great inventor of our current electric power systems, could visualize a complete AC motor in 3-D in front of him on a table and watch as it ran, to note any points of wear. He could simulate a 20-year life-time of wear and re-design the motor and re-run his simulation. All without a computer other than the incredible one between his ears. Anyone who reads a couple of biographies of his life will be struck by the autistic aspects of his personality, life-style, and additional visual-information-processing capabilities. He liked to be alone, he liked sameness, he insisted on a new white handerchief in his pocket every day, he never married (there is some doubt that he ever "fell in love"), and overall, he displayed all the features of a high-functioning autistic person.

[page 31] More recently, many researchers, discouraged by the failure to find any obvious "hole in the head" which is unique and universal to autism, have begun to look for the site of damage with neuropsychological test batteries.

If we have been looking for a "hole in the head" and the cause is an added capability to an otherwise normally functioning structure in the head, it is no surprise that we have failed. Given the list of additional capabilities above, where might we look in the brain structure for additional visual information processing capabilities? Joseph LeDoux in his book, The Emotional Brain, gave me the clue as to where to look. The brain structure would have to contain visual processing capabilities in a structure whose operation becomes fixed at an early age in childhood. That assumption eliminates the cortex and other higher brain functions as a possible source of the added capabilities. Here's an excerpt from my review of LeDoux's book.

In 1980 Robert Zajonc's exposure effect experiments showed that what Arnold called appraisal occurs independent of cognition, and thus is more consonant with amygdaloid memory than with cognitive appraisal or memory retrieval.

[page 53 of The Emotional Brain ] If the subjects are exposed to some novel visual patterns (like Chinese ideograms) and then asked to choose whether they prefer the previously exposed or new patterns, they reliably tend to prefer the preexposed ones. Mere exposure to stimuli is enough to create preferences.

The amygdaloid structure, two almond-shaped lobes in the limbic region of the brain, are evolutionarily very old. If we were to go back to Ayla's time, at the time when the neo-cortex first began to appear in humankind, the amygdalas were perhaps the highest or best functioning portion of the brain. It allowed fast reaction times to visual stimuli, which had enormous survival benefits at a time when saber-toothed tigers roamed around. The amygdalas function today as they did then, but they have been superseded by the more comprehensive memory storage capabilities of the neo-cortex. Not replaced, but merely superseded in their memory storage functions by our current cognitive or conceptual memory capability as provided by our neo-cortex. The neo-cortex is the outer folded area of the brain that is all we normally see when we look at a naked brain.

If the cognitive memory capability of the neo-cortex replaced the more primitive amygdaloid visual-information-processing capability at some time during our evolutionary history, then the question can be asked, "Since our ontogeny recapitulates our phylogeny, when in the course of a single human life does the switch-over from amygdaloid storage to neo-cortex occur?" If we study many children, we find that normal children are not able to hold in permanent memory any events that occur before they were 5-years-old. Freud pointed this out and called it childhood amnesia. This leads us to the hypothesis that any memories before 5-years-old are stored in the amygdalas and any memories thereafter are stored in the neo-cortex.

In the normal person, the amygdala stores the visual information it receives together with the current status of the nervous system. Later in life, whenever that approximate visual pattern appears to the person, their nervous system receives signals from the amygdala via the hypothalamus to re-create that earlier status. Rightly understood, this process is what enables one to have feelings, emotions, speech patterns, and all automated limb movement, among other things. [See Basic Theory of Doyletics for empirical evidence for this claim.]

Somehow in autistic persons, some additional capability is present in either the amygdala, the neo-cortex, or their tandem connectivity. Through this advanced mutation of their brain, they are able to have enhanced visual-information-processing capability at an earlier age than five-years-old. Some begin very early, before 1-month-old, storing visual images in their amygdala-neo-cortex system, functionally by-passing the storage of feelings, emotions, speech patterns, vocal modulation, limb movements. The result is that, unless some extraordinary effort is made long before 5-years-old, the autistic child will not be able to talk much or at all, and will have no internal feelings (which will give it a flat affect in its look and what speech it does have will be absent any modulation). In other words, we have now produced a theory that can generate Wing's triad:

[page 20]
- qualitative impairment in reciprocal social interaction;
- qualitative impairment in verbal and nonverbal communication and in imaginative activity;
- markedly restricted repertoire of activities and interests.

Simply put, the impairments shown by autistic children are due to the precocious onset of cognitive memory. When an autistic child stores visual images or pictures of scenes that other children speak about in words and experience in feelings, no feelings or vocal speech patterns are stored for later use. As a result, without early intervention, an autistic child will be unable to speak or will have severe speech impediments, will have no apparent normal emotions or feelings, and will have awkward motions of its limbs. Once the child passes the 5-year-old barrier, the window of opportunity for storage of these feelings and motor patterns has been passed forever. They must learn to speak their native tongue with a difficult comparable and probably much worse that of an Oriental learning to speak English for the first time as an adult (past 5-years-old). A Nova study of two Asians, one who learned English before five and one after five, showed enormous differences in the portions of the brain that were used by the two subjects. This can be taken as an indication that before 5-years-old speech patterns can become innate [stored in the amygdala] and after 5-years-old they must done consciously. Thus an Oriental can say "illustrate" with practice if they concentrate hard on the task, but as soon as they use it in a conversation, it becomes "illustlate."

The 5-year-old transition from amygdaloid storage of physical body states to neo-cortex storage of cognitive or conceptual memory, we call in doyletics, the "memory transition age," as it is crucial to understanding what happens to all humans during maturation in the first ten years of life. The activities we provide for our children during the first five years of their life will determine the set of feelings, emotions, and automated bodily movements they will have with them for the rest of their lifetime.

Bettleheim coined the "refrigerator mother" theory in which he suggested that "children become autistic as a maladaptive response to a threatening and unloving environment." Autistic children, as we can understand them from the above, are like Ayla: they live in a threatening and unloving environment by virtue of their mutated visual-information-processing capability. It is not the autistic child's capability that is threatening to them, but that the people surrounding them don't have the same capability as the child does, so they treat the autistic child as if it were just like them, as if the child thought, processed information, and felt the same way as they do. The autistic child when invited to go swimming may create a visual image of herself swimming and swimming and swimming forever and resist forcefully being taken to such an activity, until someone has the foresight to say, "We're going swimming and we're coming back!" (Page 49)

It is possible to understand how an autistic child in a large family can proceed to almost five years old without anyone noticing the problem before it's too late. Hopefully the work done by the various autism support groups and foundations will get the message out to all parents as to what to look for, and how to take immediate corrective action. My hope is that the new science of doyletics, in providing a novel way of understanding brain function and maturation, especially the memory transition age effect, will lead to a better understanding of autism, and with luck, to the discovery of the source of the additional brain function that leads to the developmental syndrome that Francesca Happé has covered so comprehensively in this book.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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