Archive for the ‘Week 04’ Category

Prolonged Effects of Communication Therapies

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

A few things struck me in reading these articles, especially in comparing the New Yorker article (by someone with Aspergers), and the Bauminger et al. article on the table top therapy.

The first is this desire that we have to conform the social interactions and expectations of individuals with Autism (or Aspergers as the case may be) to our expectations. In reading Page’s account of his childhood trip, some of the information retained is remarkable, even if it isn’t what we would socially expect to be given. I pause to wonder what unique abilities might be lost in expecting those with Autism or some other disability to conform to our expectations of “normative development.” But maybe that’s just me.

The study done with the table top interface intrigued me. While they admitted that their studies were minimalistic, I would be curious to see what a longitudinal study would produce (result-wise). How would it manipulate the communicative efforts of someone like Page in their adulthood? Do you think that by engaging these theories, we are actively engaging those with Autism to transform into more normative personifications? (Reference the difference in story narrations presented in the Losh and Capps article). Or are we merely just teaching those with autism or aspergers to translate their thinking and parrot-it back to us in a way that is socially acceptable by our standards?

Maybe an fMRI would be interesting to look at pre- and post- therapies contrasted with similarly developmental challenges who don’t receive treatment? Or maybe that’s just cruel to not treat someone for the sake of examining actual effectiveness of therapies.

faces and mindblindness?

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

The reading about autism and mindblindness, suggests that “mindblindness” is a common feature of children with autism, making the children unable to distinguish people from things, also children with autism who have “mindblindness” tend not to be able to distinguish the thoughts of others or understand their beliefs or feelings.  

However, Bosselar and Massaro speak of the importance of incorporating faces in order to help children with autism improve their communication skills. “The limited ability to produce and comprehend spoken language is themost common factor leading to a diagnosis of autism” (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

If the importance is placed on helping children with autism improve their communication skills, and faces are the way to do this, would that not be hard for the children with autism (who have trouble distinguishing people from things) to do?

Perhaps, like the comic strips, (that try to illustrate to children how people’s thinking works), the visual is the key to helping children understand the broad picture.  Bosselar says the face is the key, so in order for children with “mindblindness” to be able to recognize face and emotion in others, they must receive a lot of exposure to faces to understand them.  Because of this, it seems that it’s important to emphasize the need for plenty of human contact for people with autism.

Communication and learning styles

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Amanda Baggs, from the Wired article and youtube video states that her native language is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of her environment. Her failure to speak is seen a deficit, while other people’s failure to learn her language is seen as natural and acceptable.

The Capps paper that was about conversational abilities, showed verbal and non-verbal behavior in loosely structured dialogue about personal experiences. I wonder how the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test (measuring abstract reasoning, spotting patterns, solving geometric puzzles, mentioned in the Wired article) would have changed the possible groupings/pairing of children for the study instead of IQ tests. “The Wechsler scores give only a glimpse of the autistics’ intelligence, whereas the Raven — the gold standard of fluid intelligence testing — reveals the true, or at least truer, level of general intelligence.”

In the Capps paper, there was also mention that “some persons with autism think in pictures rather than in words… perhaps enacted/enacting circumstances and scenarios renderthem more accessible than verbalized/verbalizing accounts.” Another profound observation was that “we develop the capacity to exchange meanings and negotiate understandings with an unthinking ease, a capacity that is perhaps most strikingly revealed in its absence amoung persons with autism… the social deficits in autism, are perhaps best understood in terms of a profound difficulty in acquiring and making use of conventional knowledge.”

This reminds me a bit of having long conversations with some friends of mine that have only been speaking English for a couple years. Not just slang, but some common phrases that native English speakers use often can immediately stop the flow of conversation since the phrase makes no sense. Sometimes, the native English speaker doesn’t really know the phrase’s meaning or origin themselves, but simply know when it is appropriate to use the phrase, thus making it even harder to explain to the other person. (i.e. cooking from scratch, jailbait). This would be like a comedian explaining all the references they pulled together for a joke or explaining the setup.

Perhaps there are even more communicative differences between verbal people with autism and non-verbal people with autism. Maybe if allowed to speak in their language (and there were a mechanism for “translation”), people with autism would be effective communicator. In the case of Amanda Baggs and the woman from the week 1 video, once they were fluent in our language, they could communicate with profound thoughts (using text-to-speech).

As they are growing up and progressing though the school system, people afflicted with dyslexia (learning disability dealing with written language) or ADHD (neurobehavioural developmental disorder) are given opportunities to get special instruction and experience alternative teaching methods that allow them to learn material in a way that is most beneficial to them. People with autism don’t seem to have the opportunities, possibly under the assumption that people with autism may have less capacity to learn and understand than others.

Even with typical children/students, there are many different learning styles: visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, solitary (http://www.learning-styles-online.com/overview/). Teachers try to use as many of these methods as possible in an effort to let as many students learn in a way that is most beneficla to them. It would be interesting to understand the different learning styles that both verbal and non-verbal people with autism have, especially since the spectrum is so wide.

Therapies for Conversational Development.

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

One thing struck me as I moved from the readings of theories to practices this week. Especially in the case of the Capps article, there is a lot of data showing the deficits in communicative ability that autism produces in individuals. It also showed the similarity in deficits that autism shares with other basic developmental disorders. The biggest disparity between the two, and one of the biggest challenges in communication development for autistic individuals, is the concept of adding relevant information to extend a conversation.

In both the Bosseler article, we see a great example of a technology that addresses the symptoms of autism in a very fragmented approach. It fails to address one of the biggest problems that autism produces - sure an individual may have the knowledge to add relevant information to a conversation - but how do we get them to integrate their knowledge into everyday life? I felt that the research done with the language development and vocabulary wizard, though great in and of itself, failed to address the larger symptomatic problems that those with autism face in the scope of communication.

Contingent Discourse Ability

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

It was interesting to see how the research in autism progressed, especially in the area of studying children with autism and their contingent discourse ability. I think the article by Tager-Flusberg set a very well defined coding and criteria to set up bases for other researches to come later for researching contingency discourse. Also, a hypothesis of connecting the theory of mind to contingent discourse was introduced. One thing that I thought was missing from the paper was connecting the research findings to what they can do to improve contingent discourse ability for children with autism. I think in general, whenever you are carrying out an experiment, you need to fully understand or plan what to do after the result comes out one way or another. That is one of the reason why I think the research by Capps was much improved from Tager-Flusberg, where the research method was more defined in terms of the subjects, having specific goal to accomplish from the start. I think there is a great deal of research and also therapy method to be further studied in the area of contingent discourse, where improving it might led to learning pragmatic discourse abilities, then to peer social interaction skills and eventually to have a better personal relationship, education and employment. At the same, researchers need to keep in mind how children can apply their therapy and the new skills learned to their everyday life.

This is not connected to any of the readings, but I just wanted to voice my opinion/thoughts. I think it would be great if there were more technology for children with autism out there that focus not only for English speaking children that can be multicultural and multilingual. I understand it is difficult, like we talked about in class last week where socio-cultural affects interpersonal context and individual behavior, but I think it would be a good area to look into to see if there is anything out there that can be used for all children from different culture/country.

Mindblindness and Read my Lips

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

When I read the notion or suggestion that individuals with autism “suffer from mindblindness” but blind individuals do not, I had to take a step back. Sure, I have thought that in place of actual sight, people with clinical blindness might envision their world inside of their minds. It’s interesting how Baron-Cohen mentions that blind people give visual clues to their companions (describing shapes, outlining objects) during speech not to aide them, but simply for the benefit of the listener. They can, as Baron-Cohen states, “mindread.” That is, they are aware of all things mentally and socially, and can associate with people is this manner. I have never thought about this in the reverse. I have never imagined that someone with sight would be unable to “see” with their minds. He discusses how individuals with autism can’t distinguish (or lacked the concern to distinguish) people from objects. The lack of eye contact present and “normal social awareness of appropriate behavior” correlate to the irregularly functioning SAM and ToM, and still with normal sight, these individuals cannot see, or rather interpret, the world around them. So then, can they really see? Can an individual with autism see a smile and know it means happiness? or Can they see a vehicle coming towards them before they cross the street and know that they should stop? Baron-Cohen’s mindblindness theory was really very interesting and helpful to me in making this distinction between sight and the ability to mindread and process what is seen.

So that’s why I was a little confused when I read the “Read my Lips” article. I do agree that seeing facial expressions as well as lip reading is very helpful in creating and maintaining conversation, but when an individual almost dodges that face to face contact, it seems a bit backwards. I know that Mossaro and Bosseler mention that although individuals with autism face this obstacle (face to face contact), this program has helped to develop vocabulary. I guess this software must present a low level pressure atmosphere were the individuals are highly encouraged to look at the “face” on the screen. Is the influence and exposure to the face really supposed to prepare individuals for real world conversation? Or is this simply a vocabulary learning tool?

I also had questions about the whether or not this face would have the same effect if it spoke(embodied or disembodied) a different language or with an accent. When I speak to native Spanish speakers seeing someone’s face and hand gestures is usually very helpful, but lip reading, in most cases is not. I have spoken to many people whose speech is understandable, but when I look at their lips, they are almost frozen. The syllables seem to blend together, and its difficult to pick out the articulations made by the mouth. Usually, I just rely on what I hear and what facial expressions I can pick up. Lip reading? In my case, I say forget about it. I wonder if other languages can use this program.

Lack of perspective in children with autism

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

All of the studies featured this week agree that there exists a direct link between theory of mind (ToM) and language contingency, as demonstrated successfully by almost all and with the concept of contingent discourse explained particularly well in the reading on Tartaro & Cassell’s virtual peers. (A couple of side notes on the research studies…I was intrigued about was the use of children with Down’s Syndrome to compare results of the children with autism to…one article offered an explanation for this while another contradicted the others by saying that it really doesn’t make sense to use subjects with Down’s Syndrome as a control…this idea is curious to me. Another thing to think about in these studies was the extremely low statistical power observed in practically all–how can we change this in order to pursue our goal of producing more valid and generalizable results?)

The most basic problem seems to be a lack of knowledge and perspective, even more so when outlined in the following senses…

The inability to know what others’ know/are thinking and entertaining the possibility that what others’ know might be different from what you know (getting at the definition of ToM as delineated by Baron-Cohen in his theories on Mindblindness), and in the sense I found most thought-provoking…

The inability to tap into previous and comparative experience so as to utilize those potential narratives as a tool for both comfort in a stressful situation (for example, disruption in a routine that would lead to an upset) and for relating to others during conversation, which to us is key to navigating through the social world. Narratives, whether we realize it or not, are natural responses triggered by the need for insight into interaction and relationship; they are used as reference and sometimes even in rationalization. 

The question then becomes how much of the impairment of children with autism stems from this lack of perspective? My estimation is that this must also be inter-connected to the inability to process more abstract and imaginary thought, a lack-there-of pervasive in children with autism.  Sean expresses his inability to do so at an earlier time in his life in Act One of his “Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships.” Sean describes that creating a narrative was something he couldn’t understand and consequently often lead to him simply telling a story about himself and his behaviors. 

Again, the range in abilities in those with ASD is so remarkable and I come to appreciate that fact more each week. The Wired article demonstrates that there are always new and diverse ways to look at things, especially things that are so unbelievably multi-faceted and variant as autism. Studies, specifically those with low statistical power, are going to yield fluctuating results–children with ASD who use gesture and those that classically and more expectedly do not; there will be stories like that of Amanda Baggs or Temple Grandin or Sean Barron or Kim Peek and then at the same time, individuals with autism that must be institutionalized despite their families’ protest or their early engagement in therapy and intervention. Not to mention of course, the whole puzzling spectrum in between. There is the biomedical approach to treating autism, which is a whole separate story–check out the documentary “Autism Yesterday” and the work of Dr. Bernard Rimland if you are interested…it stakes the claim that autism is treatable/curable, yet (conveniently??) by no means addresses the thousands of questions stumping scientists and parents all over the world. Then there is the technological approach– there is that which addresses the emotional intelligence quandary and that which encourages scientific research as to the neurological roots of the disorder. This array of approaches (and perspectives!) is important to arriving at as many truths as possible. 

Mind Blindness and the Advantages of Facial Expressions in Learning

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

In the excerpt “Autism and Mindblindness“, Simon Baron Cohen defined a clear theory on the reasons behind the behaviors present in children with autism that we have discussed in class. By presenting the brain mechanisms at work in developing children and how they may be impaired in children with autism, the article gave me a functional perspective on autism that seemed more tangible than previous discussions presenting the information.

While this excerpt helped me understand autism better, the article “Read my lips: The importance of the face in a computer-animated tutor for vocabulary learning by children with autism” seemed to challenge the knowledge gained from Cohen. However after reading the article, the effectiveness of a facial vocabulary tutor does not seem to challenge the idea of mind blindness despite the implication that it might. This stems from the fact that a child would not have to exercise any of the impaired brain mechanisms discussed in the Cohen article to gain the benefit of vocabulary retention that seeing a virtual face say words would offer. The child could simply see the face as a configuration of objects that move in certain ways when certain words are stated, which would offer a visual cue for remembering certain definitions and words. Is there a reason to believe that children with autism would need to use theory of mind to gain the benefits of such a tutor as the authors seem to believe?

Teaching Communication: week 04

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

This week’s reading really gave insight into the way in which many children with autism have trouble communicating with the outside world. Baron-Cohen’s piece regarding the different spectrums at which children with autism can read facial expressions along with verbal and non- verbal communications, gave a descriptive view of the way in which children with autism communicate. The way Baron-Cohen broke up different levels of communication abilities was particularly interesting; children with autism were able to often understand ID communication as well as eye contact or EDD, however, Cohen points out that children lack the ability to communicate with SAM- the ability to see yourself and another object as similar. When reading the description of SAM, I immediately felt this was similar to Theory of Mind, which after reading more, I realized seems to be the largest issue in terms of communication with children who have autism. Capp’s article confirmed this and further explained how children with autism specifically lack the ability to respond to questions along with expounding on a conversation. Flusberg expanded on this topic, in particular, this article brought up what I feel is a really great way of describing the issue of Theory of Mind in terms of communication, illustrating how, it is difficult for children with autism to communicate through different emotional states because they often to note even know that different mental states formally exist.

Both Bosseler and Cassell’s articles suggest alternative ways of working on this issue of communication. “Read My Lips” illustrates a computer-animated tutor, which is supposed to help with vocabulary and grammar. While the program was supposedly pretty successful I can’t imagine it being the best solution for this issue since it doesn’t deal with what several of the researchers describe as the main problem-Theory of Mind. Cassell et al.’s Virtual Peer program, seems like a much more effective way to treat the lack of communication within children with autism. For one, it forces children to work on many of the issues that are common struggles for autistic children, such as turn taking, vocabulary and peer interaction. Furthermore, it provides a nice intermediary state between a pseudo world and a real communicative situation. However, the virtual world is so real that the once these children work on perfecting their communication in a virtual world, I would imagine they will feel more acclimated and comfortable to perform in the real world as well. I think this will be a very progressive and interesting way to treat children with autism in the future.

Humans, Objects, the Real and the Virtual

Monday, April 21st, 2008

The end of the Tartaro & Cassell article discusses their works implications for understanding peer interaction in the learning sciences by examining a population where peer interaction is difficult. Do these implications map onto the theoretical (and empirical) contributions of Baron-Cohen’s Mindblindness? 

To begin, Baron-Cohen has a strong tendency to adopt an evolutionary psychological orientation when analyzing the nature of autism. He has contributed chapters to text books such as, Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience (ECN), where he discusses how autism research has strong implications for ECN in general. In Mindblindness, like in his other works, he discusses autism in terms of (mal)-adaptive psychological mechanisms such as the eye-direction detection, the shared attention mechanism—(possibly why S.a.m. has “her” name)—and theory of mind.

 Tartaro & Cassell hypothesize that facilitating contingent discourse among children with ASD may be achieved by participating in a collaborative narrative task with a VP. There is a strong relationship between ToM and contingency based discourse, but even if contingent discourse improves, how do we know that this population is not systemizing these skills—acting as behaviorists instead of cognitivists?

 If their ultimate goal is to help these children access learning via peer interaction, and contextualizing their research in this fashion may contribute to the learning sciences, then we may benefit from noting the themes of the learning sciences. They are: social context, cognition, and design http://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/ls/.

 I will not discuss design, but I do argue that the social “context” cannot be separated from cognition—although I do so for slightly unorthodox reasons. I do not adopt a social theorist’s philosophy. On the contrary, I argue that espousing a solipsistic, or a rabid cognitivist’s, view will be more beneficial for our purposes.

 Baron-Cohen quotes the descriptions of autism by Kanner. One manifest difference between individuals with ASD and TD individuals is that their interaction with people is (sometimes and somewhat) comparable to their interaction with objects. What are the cognitive mechanisms involved that allow us to distinguish between the two?

 The reason that cognition should not be divorced from the social context is because we are dividing one environment into two realms: the physical and the social. People often construe the social environment as supra-organic. When interacting with other humans or with the world, do we cognitively process these as fundamentally distinct? I believe the answer is: sometimes. This is Baron-Cohens’ argument and he derives it from the “intentional stance” by Dennent. We can mentalize or we can systemize the behavior of animate objects (e.g. humans). People with ASD tend to systemize. TD persons empathize/mentalize. My point is that there are neural modules that integrate information from the environment and process certain kinds of stimuli as distinct from other kinds. Disrupt the proper formation of the neural networks and you have different cognition.

  I believe that conceptualizing human cognition in solipsistic terms is inclusive of individuals with ASD. Of course, they do not actually live in a solipsistic world and any such argument for anyone would be an epistemological one. Rather, my point is that distinguishing between humans and objects, and the real and the virtual is likely to be cognitively processed on a spectrum. It is also learned from interacting with one, holistic environment. Autism is a spectrum and all of their characteristic traits are found in the typical population, but in lesser extremes.

 I raise this final question: If technology can ensure that individuals with ASD are actually applying ToM and not systemizing human behavior, then is it better for them to develop their weakness or to work to their strengths?