Thursday, November 27, 2008

Autism: Beware grand theories

When dealing with complex and painful problems like autism, beware great theories. It is in that spirit that I introduce Amy O'Brian's article (Vancouver Sun, November 14, 2008) on the theory of Bernard Crespi, an evolutionary biologist at Canada's Simon Fraser University:

In what's being hailed as one of the most important contributions to psychiatry since those of Sigmund Freud, a researcher at Simon Fraser University has published a groundbreaking theory that could change the scientific thinking around mental illness.
And what is this theory?

Looking at the social behaviours of the two end-spectrum mental disorders, Crespi said they are solid opposites.

People with autism often have underdeveloped social behaviours, in that they often don't say much and avoid eye contact.

At the other end of the spectrum, people with schizophrenia are often hyper-developed in sociality, Crespi said.

Their sense of self can be hyper-developed into megalomania, language is hyper-developed into hearing voices, and rather than feeling isolated, people with schizophrenia often feel as if they're being watched or plotted against.
Well, we've noticed that. In fact, that's how these disorders came to be noticed as disorders. And so?
He suggests it makes sense to encourage behaviours that are found at the opposite end of the spectrum. So, in people with autism, it would make sense to nurture and strengthen their social behaviours. And the opposite might be true for people with schizophrenia.
Sure. And that is precisely what therapists have always tried to do. But with autism, it often doesn't work because the autist doesn't want to interact with other people; he is quite happy with his non-relationship activities.

Most people who are far down the autism spectrum are not at all dissatisfied with their way of life – quite the opposite, they become enraged when someone (accidentally) interrupts it.

Another theory solves nothing. There is no way out of autism unless the autist actually comes to want relationships.

See also: Deception in humans and animals

Theory of mind: Biology of imagination


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