I am very much indebted to Socrates at The New Republic for writing nice things about my blog, and also for spreading awareness about some most interesting writing in blogs about the work of the famous Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen.
I am personally stunned and amazed by the revelations by Neuroskeptic. I have a strong personal interest in the subject of autism and synaesthesia and superior ability in sensory processing, so when I recently had the chance to access and read the full text of the Baron-Cohen team’s paper published in 2009 in the journal Biological Psychiatry apparently demonstrating super-human visual acuity in autistics, I had every motivation to believe the conclusion of that paper. But I never believed it for a second, and I chose to place my copy of that obviously bizarre paper aside and not write about it or use it to support any argument that I might wish to make in the future. I do believe that two journal papers from the Mottron / University of Montreal team about the Enhanced Perceptual Functioning Model of Autism are worthwhile and credible, and I link to these papers from my blog. There is a country mile of difference between claiming that autistic people have enhanced perceptual functioning, including enhanced visual perception, and claiming that autisitic people have as a group the visual acuity of a bird of prey rather than a human. One claim is physically possible and supported by a mountain of anecdotal and research evidence. We know that autistic brains are different and it is certain that autistic brains are better at processing visual input in some ways. But the other claim, that autism has super-human visual acuity as a characteristic, is physically impossible and conflicts with evidence that any person can access.
According to what I’ve read there are a number of parts of the human body that give rise to visual acuity – the parts of the brain that process vision and also the eye and the bits in between the eyes and the brain. For autistic people to have super-super-dooper-superhuman-eagle-eyed visual acuity, we would surely need to have both brains that are incredibly finely tuned for the processing of visual information, and also an utterly flawlessly-functioning pair of eyes and the nerves connecting the eyes to the brain. Is there any remotely plausible biological mechanism by which autism, whatever its biological reality or cause, could protect or be linked to a factor that protects the eyes from all of the many diverse common visual defects and flaws? NO! There are just so many things that commonly go wrong with human eyes to make visual acuity less than perfect. Would any sensible person believe that autistics in general are in some mysterious way protected from all of these issues that can affect the eyes? NO, especially in light of the obvious fact that many people who have been diagnosed with autism do indeed wear glasses, including some famous autistic people. Do Ari Ne’eman and John Elder Robison only wear glasses as a nerdy fashion statement? I doubt it very much! Do Ari and John have the visual acuity of eagles without their specs on? I very much doubt it, but I don’t doubt for a minute that these intelligent and fascinating men are autistic. I have lousy eyesight and I also have a great eye for detail. This is not a contradiction – visual acuity and visual processing in the brain are different things.
So, very quickly a number of questions were raised in my mind – what the f*** were Baron-Cohen and crew thinking when they wrote this ridiculous nonsense about visual acuity? and what the hell do they have in the way of scientific standards over at the journal Biological Psychiatry? and what are they smoking during their lunch breaks over at the Autism Research Centre?
I had so many things that I would have liked to have done with my day besides writing this piece. I don’t have any great motivation to pick on Prof. Baron-Cohen, and I certainly don’t dismiss all of his work or all of his ideas, but I keep stumbling upon really strange things in his work, his habit of citing bizarre urban legends to support serious arguments in his writings, and now the exposure, the disconfirmation and the correction of the bizarre 2009 paper about visual acuity that Neuroskeptic has detailed, that all seem to point towards a conclusion that Baron-Cohen has a serious problem with basic knowledge of human physiology, and also, it appears, an alarming lack of simple common sense. WTF?
Is there any important point to my concern about an apparent lack of knowledge of human physiology on the part of Prof. Baron-Cohen? Yes there is. According to anecdotes and also what is written at the website of the Autism Research Centre (ARC), of which Baron-Cohen is a Director, Prof. Baron-Cohen personally does diagnosis of Asperger syndrome at the Cambridge Lifespan Asperger Syndrome Service (CLASS) which is associated with the ARC. According to what I’ve read about the CLASS, the consultants who work there are psychiatrists or psychologists, but it does not appear to offer any general medical screening or any medical geneticist as a consultant in the diagnostic process, and I’d never rely on Prof. Baron-Cohen to offer a level of medical knowledge that would compensate for such deficiencies in the range of expertise of this diagnostic team. Why is it important that there be a geneticist as a part of this team? Because there is a very close relationship between the autistic spectrum and rare genetic syndromes. We know that adults can live to a great age without being properly identified as autistic, and the same applies to some genetic syndromes. Some of the genetic syndromes that are associated with autism are very harmful, unpredictable, treatable and/or can be unwittingly passed on genetically. Fragile X syndrome and mitochondrial diseases are just a couple of the many rare genetic syndromes that are in some way linked to the autistic spectrum. I believe it is negligent to offer any service for the diagnosis of autism or Asperger syndrome that is promoted as a diagnostic team, but which does not include specialist screening for genetic syndromes as well as general medical screening. According to what I’ve read, autistic people are at an elevated risk of having epilepsy. There is a clear need for medical screening as a part of any clinical team for the diagnosis of autism. Do you think this is good enough?
Eagle-Eyed Autism? No.
29 June 2011
[see the comments as well]
Simon Baron Cohen, autism and empathy.
by Indigo Jo
Indigo Jo Blogs.
June 29th 2011
Die Zeitgeist! Es brennt!
The New Republic.
Far visual acuity is unremarkable in autism: Do we need to focus on crowding?
Luc Kéïta, Laurent Mottron, Armando Bertone. Autism Research. Vol 3 Issue 6 p.333-341 December 2010
Article first published online: 6 OCT 2010DOI: 10.1002/aur.164
Lili Marlene blogs at Incorrect Pleasures.
Blog pieces about the work of Baron-Cohen well worth reading appears here by permission.